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William Bradford Fails Upward — and Is Still Lying About His Credentials

by Kevin Jon Heller

When last we met William Bradford, he had just published an article in the National Security Law Journal (NSLJ) accusing centrist national-security-law professors of treason and advocating prosecuting them for providing material support to terrorists. After many scholars, including me, pointed out that the article was both absurd and deeply offensive, the NSLJ repudiated the article. (Alas, the journal has since scrubbed the repudiation from its website.)

Bradford’s article was not his first brush with controversy He was forced to resign from Indiana University at Indianapolis after Inside Higher Education revealed that he had lied about his military service, falsely claiming, inter alia, that he had fought in Desert Storm and Bosnia and had won a Silver Star. Bradford then later resigned from West Point — whose decision to hire him still boggles the mind — after it came to light that he had falsely claimed that he had been an assistant professor at the National Defense University (NDU), run by the Department of Defense. According to the NDU, to quote the Guardian, “he was not a professor there, nor even a staff employee…. He is said to have worked for a Waynesboro, Virginia-based translations and business consultant, Translang, which had a contract with the university.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that someone who has accused respected law professors of committing treason and who was forced to resign from two academic institutions for lying about his credentials might have a difficult time finding a new — and more important — position. But if you do think that, you have never met Donald J. Trump, for whom no one is too dishonest or too incompetent to hire. Because Trump has recently appointed Bradford to the be the Director of the Office of Indian Energy at the Department of Energy (DoE).

That’s appalling in and of itself. But the awfulness doesn’t end there, because Bradford is still lying about his credentials. Here is a screenshot of Bradford’s bio on the DoE website (in case the DoE reads this and decides to scrub it):

Notice the text inside the red rectangle: Bradford is still claiming to have been a faculty member at the NDU — the same claim that led to his resignation from West Point.

In any sane administration, Bradford would be fired in the next 48 hours. But this is the Trump administration, so I’m not holding my breath.

IHL Does Not Authorise Detention in NIAC: A Response to Murray

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past couple of years, a number of scholars — including me — have debated whether IHL implicitly authorises detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC.) The latest intervention in the debate comes courtesy of Daragh Murray in the Leiden Journal of International Law. As the article’s abstract makes clear, Murray is firmly in the “IHL authorises” camp:

On the basis of current understandings of international law – and the prohibition of arbitrary detention in particular – it is concluded that international humanitarian law must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority, in order to ensure the continued regulation of armed groups.

I disagree that IHL cannot regulate non-state actor (NSA) detention in NIAC unless it authorises that detention, for reasons I will explain in this post. Before we get to Murray’s argument, however, it is important to remind ourselves of what is at stake in the debate. Put simply, if Murray is right and IHL authorises NSAs to detain, two significant consequences follow: (1) states have no right to prosecute NSAs who detain government soldiers, even if such detention would qualify as kidnapping or wrongful imprisonment under domestic criminal law; and (2) NSAs have the right to detain government soldiers for as long as they pose a “security threat” to the NSA — ie, essentially forever. In other words, FARC could detain a Colombian soldier for five decades and Colombia couldn’t prosecute the commander responsible for that detention as long as FARC complied with NIAC’s procedural restrictions on detention.

Now let’s turn to Murray’s argument. Here are the critical paragraphs in the article:

[I]nternational law cannot regulate activity that is subject to an absolute prohibition. For example, instances of torture cannot be regulated as torture is subject to an absolute prohibition. The same is true with respect to armed group detention in non-international armed conflict: the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention precludes the possibility of regulating arbitrary detention (p. 9)

Two possibilities are open: either international humanitarian law establishes an implicit legal basis for detention, or it does not and the authority to detain must be established elsewhere. If international humanitarian law does not establish an implicit legal basis for detention then all instances of detention by armed groups will necessarily violate the prohibition of arbitrary detention as a legal basis for armed group detention does not exist under domestic law or elsewhere in international law. Yet, to interpret Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II in this way is to conclude that states have developed international treaty law to regulate detention operations by armed groups, despite the fact that all instances of armed group detention are illegal. This interpretation is incapable of giving effect to states’ intentions, and to the object and purpose of the provisions themselves. As discussed above, states cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited, and so the only means by which Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II can regulate detention by armed groups is if these provisions establish an implicit legal basis for that detention  (p. 14)

The first thing to note is that the torture analogy is misplaced. International law does indeed absolutely prohibit torture. But it does not absolutely prohibit detention — not even in NIAC. On the contrary, a state is free to detain as long as it adopts the necessary domestic legislation. It is even free to domestically authorise an NSA to detain, as well. (Which is not absurd. A state may well conclude that an NSA is more likely to treat captured government soldiers humanely if it does not prohibit the very act of detention.) So what Murray is actually arguing is that because most states choose not to authorise NSAs to detain, international humanitarian law (IHL) necessarily authorises it for them so they can regulate that detention. That’s a very puzzling claim, given that states are the authors of IHL.

The fundamental problem with Murray’s position, however, is that it is simply not the case that IHL can’t regulate a practice that international law absolutely prohibits. I will discuss in a minute the situation regarding detention in NIAC, in which the regulation and the prohibition come from different legal regimes — regulation from IHL, prohibition from international human rights law (IHRL). But before doing so, it is worth noting that Murray’s argument does not work even when the regulation and the prohibition come from the same legal regime — a situation in which you would think Murray’s argument would be even stronger…

So . . . What do you think should be in your international law textbook?

by Duncan Hollis

I’m honored to have been invited by Allen Weiner to join him in the forthcoming 7th edition of the textbook, International Law, which he previously edited with the late Professor Barry Carter. We’re just beginning the effort of pulling together the new edition for Aspen this Spring and Summer.

Before we get too far along, I wanted to invite feedback from readers who have used the textbook on what they think of the text.  In particular, we’re interested in hearing about areas that we should be focusing on more closely or areas that we need to avoid cutting as we try to keep the text to a manageable length.  That said, I’d welcome more general feedback on what you like or don’t like about the textbook as well.  Moreover, for those of you who haven’t read it, I’d be interested in suggestions for cases or materials you’ve always wanted to see included in a basic introductory text for international law that have yet to receive sufficient attention.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to respond to any and all suggestions, let alone adjust the next edition too dramatically from its roots.  Still, I know I speak for Allen in saying that we want to have an open door to new ideas and concepts.  So, feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly if you have suggestions, criticisms, or other thoughts to offer.  Thanks!


The Disappearing UN Report on Israeli “Apartheid”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) sent shockwaves through the international community by issuing a report that — for the first time in UN history — claims Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to the crime of apartheid. Here is ESCWA’s description of the report, entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” which was officially commissioned by ESCWA but does not purport to represent the official opinion of the UN:

This report examines, based on key instruments of international law, whether Israel has established an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Having established that the crime of apartheid has universal application, that the question of the status of the Palestinians as a people is settled in law, and that the crime of apartheid should be considered at the level of the State, the report sets out to demonstrate how Israel has imposed such a system on the Palestinians in order to maintain the domination of one racial group over others.

A history of war, annexation and expulsions, as well as a series of practices, has left the Palestinian people fragmented into four distinct population groups, three of them (citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem and the populace under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza) living under direct Israeli rule and the remainder, refugees and involuntary exiles, living beyond. This fragmentation, coupled with the application of discrete bodies of law to those groups, lie at the heart of the apartheid regime. They serve to enfeeble opposition to it and to veil its very existence. This report concludes, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, and urges swift action to oppose and end it.

Predictably, the ESCWA report enraged Israel and the United States. Both states pressured the UN to withdraw the report — and to his lasting shame, the Secretary General, António Guterres, quickly folded. (Claiming, truly beggaring belief, that the decision had nothing to do with the report’s content.) Although you can still find the press release on ESCWA’s website, the report has been scrubbed from the webpage containing all of ESCWA’s reports. Only the Executive Summary remains — and it can only be found by entering the title of the report into Google and looking for the ESCWA link.

As critical as I am of Israel’s unconscionable oppression of and violence toward Palestinians, I have never accused Israel of practicing apartheid. But there is absolutely no justification for the UN suppressing an official report issued by one of the regional offices of the Economic and Social Council — particularly in response to pressure from the object of that report (and its chief enabler). Nor is this the first time the UN has bowed to Israeli pressure: recall Ban Ki-moon’s indefensible decision in 2015 to remove Israel from the UN’s “list of shame” of children’s rights violators. Unfortunately, it appears his successor will be no less craven.

That said, at least one UN official has the courage of her convictions. Rima Khalaf, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA, reacted to Guterres’ decision to scrub the report by immediately resigning.

You can find a copy of the 74-page report here. Do what the Israel, the US, and the UN don’t want you to do — read the report and decide the apartheid question for yourself.

NATO, in Nine Tweets

by Chris Borgen

This morning President Trump tweeted that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

But that’s not how NATO commitments work. And so this afternoon, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder gave President Trump a tutorial in nine tweets.

Maybe we can get someone to read the tweets aloud on Fox & Friends.


America’s Hubris, Cambodia Version

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is difficult to overstate the horrors the US inflicted on Cambodia from the air during the Vietnam War: 230,000 sorties involving 113,000 different sites; 500,000 tonnes of bombs, as much as the US dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during WW II; at least 50,000, and probably closer to 150,000, innocent civilians killed. Even worse, that bombing campaign, along with the US-backed coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970, is widely credited with helping bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power, and we know how that turned out — at least 1.7 million Cambodians murdered, an auto-genocide of epic proportions.

The US has never apologized for its actions in Cambodia. President Obama didn’t even mention the Vietnam War when he became the first President to visit Cambodia in 2012. The Trump administration, however, is not afraid to discuss Vietnam. On the contrary, it is currently very interested in discussing US actions during the war — to demand that Cambodia pay back $500 million it owes the US for providing support to Lon Nol’s unpopular regime:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

William Heidt, the US’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s failure to pay back the debt puts it in league with Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

“To me, Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears…buildings coming up all over the city, foreign investment coming in, government revenue is rapidly rising,” Mr Heidt was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily.

“I’m saying it is in Cambodia’s interest not to look to the past, but to look at how to solve this because it’s important to Cambodia’s future,” he said, adding that the US has never seriously considered cancelling the debt.

Look forward, not backward. Where have we heard that before?

I have little doubt that Cambodia’s debt to the US is valid under international law. But that does not mean the US has the moral right to demand payment — much less to compare Cambodia to debt scofflaws like Zimbabwe. (How much does the US owe the UN right now? It was almost $3 billion at the end of 2015.) As James Pringle, Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh city during the Vietnam War, recently wrote in the Cambodia Daily, “Cambodia does not owe even a brass farthing to the U.S. for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

But what do I know? Perhaps Donald Trump needs the $500 million to finance the US’s current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Or to build the wall between the US and Mexico.

The impact of Morocco’s admission to the African Union on the dispute over the Western Sahara

by Alonso Illueca and Sophocles Kitharidis

[Alonso Illueca is Adjunct Professor of International Law at Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua (Panama) and holds an LL.M. from Columbia University, where he specialised in Public International Law. His main fields of research include recognition of states and governments, the law of treaties, and the use of force. Sophocles Kitharidis is a sessional academic at Monash University and holds an LL.M from the University of Melbourne, where he specialised in Public International Law. He has worked and published within the field of public international law, with his current fields of research including the use of force, peacekeeping operations and the law of international organisations.]

On 30 January 2017, Morocco was admitted to the African Union (AU) after previously withdrawing more than three decades ago, from the Organization of African Unity (its predecessor). Morocco became the 55th Member State of the AU, a decision adopted by “consensus”.  Nevertheless, as many as 15 Member States, inter alia, South Africa and Algeria, initially stressed their disapproval of Morocco’s bid. These States were concerned with the simultaneous debate on the question of the Western Sahara and the status of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the AU.

The return of Morocco to Africa’s regional organization raises a plethora of issues within the field of Statehood. One central issue explored below is whether Morocco’s membership to the AU, has a practical effect on the SADR’s claim of statehood, given the SADR membership to the regional organization.  In addition, what are the legal consequences of Morocco’s action vis-à-vis the SADR?

The UN and the question of recognition of States

The status of the Western Sahara remains a contested issue since the 1970s. This situation has been the subject of a treaty (Madrid Accords), the advisory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, an armed conflict, and several resolutions by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). The UNGA has characterized Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an “occupation”, recognizing the right to self-determination and independence for the people of Western Sahara with the Polisario Front as their legitimate representative (see resolutions 34/37 and 35/19).

After 15 years of hostilities between Morocco and the SADR, the UN brokered a ceasefire. In 1992, the UNSC established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara with the mandate of implementing a Settlement Plan (See S/21360 and S/22464) in the hope of leading a referendum on self-determination. Needless to say, the Plan has not been fully implemented, but the ceasefire has been maintained.

The UN considers the Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory (see here and UN Charter, Chapter XI). Notwithstanding this status, the SADR has managed to gain recognition by more than 80 States (even though many of them have later withdrawn it). It is important to note that the UN is not the appropriate legal entity to recognize States, given its adopted (and maintained) view that recognition can only be granted or withheld by States (see here & UN Doc. 1466). The UN appears to follow the practice of the League of Nations, where membership was not equated with recognition by all Members.

The SADR membership to the OAU and the AU

In 1982, the SADR was admitted to the OAU. Art IV of the OAU Charter establishes that the organization is open to “each independent sovereign African State”. Reacting to the OAU decision to admit the SADR as a Member State, Morocco decided to withdraw from the regional body. In 2001, the OAU was replaced with the AU, whose membership is open to any “African State” (AU Constitutive Act, Article 29). Additionally, 38 out of the 54 (now 55) AU Member States have explicitly recognized the SADR, accounting to 70% of the Union’s membership.

Recognition Theories applied to the SADR

Within the field of the recognition of States, two theories offer divergent views: (1) the declarative doctrine, which advocates for a norm based approach to the Statehood question, and (2) the constitutive doctrine, which offers a collective approach to the question. These theories provide different answers to the question of the SADR’s statehood.

When reflecting on the doctrinal debate of the recognition of States, one would assume that by applying the declarative theory, the admission of Morocco to AU would not have practical effects on the SADR’s Statehood claim. The declarative theory considers the political existence of a State as a ‘fact’, which is independent of recognition by other States. This theory, as articulated by the 1933 Montevideo Convention (arts. 1, 3 & 6) characterizes the act of recognition of a State as the acceptance of the entity’s international legal personality with all the rights and duties determined by international law. It considers recognition as an ‘unconditional and irrevocable’ act. To be recognized as a State, the aspiring entity must fulfil the Montevideo criteria (art. 1, note that this criteria has been expanded on by other scholars). As such, the act of recognition is nothing more than the acknowledgement of a pre-existent condition (Statehood) by other States. Consequently, the SADR claim would depend on its ability to satisfy the criteria for statehood, namely permanent population, defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter relations with other States.

The declarative doctrine was adopted by the Organization of American States’ Charter (arts. 13-14). Similarly, the Institut de Droit International endorsed the declaratory theory in its 1936 Resolution, while stressing the irrevocable character of recognition and the absence of effect of non-recognition by other States.

If analysed through the constitutive theory, Morocco’s admission to the AU may be interpreted as an implicit recognition of SADR. Nevertheless, this approach remains problematic as it equates the AU’s decision on admission with recognition of States. There is no established test within this theory that provides for the number of States that have to extend recognition for aspiring entity to be considered as such.

Lastly, it remains unclear whether the AU Constitutive Act adopts, if any, a Statehood recognition theory. Contrary to the question of the recognition of governments, where the AU has a settled practice on non-recognition of unconstitutional governments, its practice concerning the recognition of States remains inconclusive. Admission to the AU (Constitutive Act, art 29), requires the individual consideration by each Member State of an application. As illustrated by the case of South Sudan, the question of Statehood seems to be left for the legal and political considerations of each State.

Morocco’s obligations vis-à-vis the SADR

The fact that Statehood theories do not provide a definitive answer to our first question does not mean that Morocco’s readmission to the AU had no actual legal effect. When a State declares its membership to a regional organization, it accedes to its constitutive instrument. The obligations enshrined in such an instrument become applicable to the new member (in this case, Morocco) and all other members (inter alia the SADR) notwithstanding their mutual recognition as States (See, Christian Hillgruber, p. 496). Therefore, it could be argued that by joining the AU, Morocco recognized the principles established in Art 4 of the Constitutive Act, in its relations vis-à-vis the Member States (and, therefore, the SADR), which include respect of borders existing on achievement of independence, peaceful resolution of conflicts, prohibition on the threat or use of force, non-interference in internal affairs, and peaceful co-existence of Member States. It is difficult to think what would remain of these principles if a Member State could cherry-pick which principles it would apply in its relationship with other Member States. Similar problems would also arise if a Member State could choose the States that would benefit from the principles enshrined in the AU Constitutive Act.

Similarly to the OAU Charter, the AU Constitutive Act, does not provide for reservations. Therefore, for Morocco to disregard the principles of the organization in its relations vis-à-vis the SADR, it would need, at least, the approval of all Member States of the AU as provided by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (see section on reservations).

It is also relevant to note that the AU Constitutive Act does not provide for the expulsion of members and that their suspension is only considered in cases of unconstitutional regime change. The latter entails that in the event of a Moroccan bid for suspension, exclusion or expulsion of the SADR, the Court of Justice of the Union (now the African Court of Justice and Human Rights) would be entrusted with deciding the question dealing with the “interpretation arising from the application or implementation of this Act” (AU Constitutive Act, art. 26). Prior to the establishment of this Court, the Assembly of the Union, the supreme organ of the organization, was entrusted with such decision (two-thirds majority vote). In any event, the decision would have to acknowledge the irrevocable character of the recognition that 70% of the AU membership has extended to the SADR. All things considered, the question of the SADR membership to the AU and the rights that it holds in relation to other States is likely to be considered a settled issue.


The establishment of a State is a contested issue, both doctrinally and politically. Whether Morocco’s recent admission to the AU is viewed as an implied recognition of the SADR and its statehood is of course questionable. However, this political ‘act’ allows scholars and practitioners to explore the possibility that under international law, and dependent on the interpretation of the AU’s Constitutive Act, Morocco’s admission may have legal consequences on the Western Sahara question and the SADR status under international law.

Two Positions at PHAP

by Kevin Jon Heller

PHAP — Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection — is advertising two positions in Geneva that might be of interest to readers. The first is Policy Coordinator:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for an experienced policy professional to support the association’s efforts to foster new perspectives on critical issues affecting the humanitarian sector through inclusive and objective discussion. This is a new position.

Building on the association’s trend monitoring efforts, the Policy Coordinator will analyze a variety of emerging and developing challenges affecting humanitarian work. When priority issues are identified, the Policy Coordinator is accountable for setting up and supporting issue-focused member committees, assisting in organizing their discussions and supporting the association’s efforts to engage on priority policy issues.

The second is Communications Officer:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for a dynamic communications professional to join the association’s secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Communications Officer is accountable for implementing and further developing the association’s public and member communication strategies.

I have worked with PHAP for years, conducting IHL trainings all around the world. It is an exceptional organisation that does interesting and important work. Definitely apply if one of the positions sound right for you! The deadline is coming soon — this Sunday, March 12, for both positions.

International Organizations Event Upcoming in NYC

by Kristen Boon

A terrific event is coming up in NYC Friday,  March 10, 2017, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. at the New York City Bar.   Ian Johnstone, Jacob Katz Cogan, Thomas G. Weiss,  and Anjali Dayal will discuss the Future of International Organizations.  The Moderator will be Mona Khalil of Independent Diplomat.
The speakers are editors and contributors to the Oxford Handbook of International Organizations.
This is the topic of the evening: “Virtually every important question of public policy today involves an international organization. From security to trade to intellectual property to health policy and beyond, governments interact with international organizations in almost everything they do. Yet after decades of progressive institutionalization, the tide seems to be turning. In Africa, states are withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.  In Europe, an “ever closer Union” seems a distant ideal. And the new leadership in the United States has signaled deep scepticism about the value of all international
organizations. Is this the beginning of the end of international organization? What role will international institutions play in the changing geopolitical landscape of the 21st century?”
You can register here if you are interested in attending.

Trump and International Law: Making Hegel Great Again?

by Ralph Janik

[Ralph Janik is a researcher at the University of Vienna Faculty of Law, Department of European, International and Comparative Law.]

The presidency of Donald Trump obviously has a manifest impact on international law. After all, he and his administration do not seem to be overly interested in observing international law. Does Trump’s “America First”-policy ultimately imply a comeback of Hegel’s conceptualization of international law as “external public law”?

Regardless of what one may think of him, Donald Trump is a phenomenon keeping virtually everyone with only the slightest interest in politics occupied. Researchers in a variety of fields can’t stop attempting to characterize him and his policies. A psychologist may elaborate on his narcissism, disagreeableness, and grandiosity (see this article in the Atlantic). From the perspective of international relations, most seem to think that he is simply erratic and mostly clueless while one may also distil a coherent Machiavellian foreign policy where unpredictability plays a key role. From a historical point of view, it makes sense to follow Walter Russell Mead’s classification of four types of US presidents by drawing parallels to Andrew Jackson. For an international lawyer, Trump may be described as an adherent of Hegel.

From Paris to Torture

At the outset, it does not seem as if Trump has a keen interest in international law and even less in observing it. Concerns regarding US participation in vital treaties and its adherence to international law in general that have been swirling around ever since the presidential race are currently rising to new heights (see e.g. this panel discussion with John B Bellinger III and Rosa Brooks). Some of the most important topics are the Paris Agreement, the Geneva Conventions, or the prohibition of torture.

As recently as end of January, a former climate change adviser of Donald Trump had stated that Trump “will definitely pull out of Paris climate change deal” and that an executive order could be expected shortly. Under international law, however, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would be effective in 2020 while withdrawing from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entirely would take one year. It remains to be seen whether the US will comply with its obligations in the meantime considering that the Paris Agreement is silent when it comes to enforcement (see this blog post by Kate Birmingham Bontekoe).

Trump furthermore stated that “the soldiers are afraid to fight” because of the Geneva Conventions. At the same occasion, he also implicitly called for negative reciprocity in International Humanitarian Law (which is obviously unlawful; eg the preamble to Additional Protocol I states that it and the Geneva Convention “must be fully applied in all circumstances to all persons who are protected by those instruments, without any adverse distinction based on the nature or origin of the armed conflict or on the causes espoused by or attributed to the Parties to the conflict”) when stating that “[w]e can’t waterboard, but they can chop off heads […] I think we’ve got to make some changes, some adjustments.” He also repeatedly stated his belief in the efficiency of torture (“Absolutely I feel it works”).

In light of such statements, one cannot help but feeling taken back to the Bush era and the aftermath of 9/11. Interestingly enough, however, even two of the architects of what Jens David Ohlin described as an “Assault on International Law” and proponents of far-reaching executive powers, namely John Yoo or Eric Posner, have publicly stated that they are concerned because of Trump (I wonder whether Ohlin is currently contemplating a follow-up book).

Hegel and international law as “external public law”

Trump’s “America First”-policy, coupled with him openly questioning fundamental principles of international law seems to be based quasi-absolute understanding of sovereignty, where obligations of all sorts are often viewed as obstacles to national interest and national security.

This takes us back to the good old Monism vs. Dualism-debate. To sum up briefly, dualism purports that international law and public law are too different and entirely unconnected fields while monists assume that they are part of one and the same legal order, while the generally accepted view holds that sovereignty is restricted by the primacy of international law.

For Hegel, however, state law reigns supreme (see his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §333). Like Emer de Vattel before him, he transposed the Hobbesian understanding of the state of nature to the international plane. In absence of an (international) Leviathan, the rights of states “are actualized not in a universal will with constitutional powers over them, but in their own particular wills.” Agreements are thus not binding in the strict sense but “tainted with contingency.” He tellingly termed international law as “external public law.”

Non-interventionism and Sovereignty

One may nevertheless argue that Trump has repeatedly shown flashes of non-interventionism and respect for a strict understanding of sovereignty similar to that of powerful traditionalist states like Russia or China. In his “America First” speech from April 2016 he emphasized his “desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China” and made clear that “war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength.”

Yet, such amicable statements are arguably owed to political, not legal considerations. In this connection, it deserves to be mentioned that Hegel explicitly discussed Kant’s idea of perpetual peace by noting that it ultimately “presupposes an agreement between states” which “would always be dependent on particular sovereign wills.”

The denial of international law

Hegel’s monism is nowadays generally seen as a relic of the past. In particular Hans Kelsen, already in the first edition of his Pure Theory of Law from 1934, forcefully argued that “a monistic construction based on the primacy of the legal system of one’s own state is completely incompatible with the notion of plurality of coordinate states, equally ordered and legally separated from each other in their spheres of validity […] the primacy of the state legal system implies in the end not only the denial of the sovereignty of all other states, and thereby their legal existence as states (in terms of the dogma of sovereignty), but also the denial of international law.”

Trump offers yet another reason to engage with (international) legal theory (see also Andrea Bianchi’s blogpost). Judging from his first weeks in office, he seems to be following the footsteps of Hegel as a denier of international law. Knowingly or not, Trump is trying to make Hegel great again.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Lawfire!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently, being named Charles and having vast military experience is all the rage in the blogosphere these days. Last week I mentioned Charles Blanchard’s new blog. And this week I want to spruik Charles Dunlop’s new(ish) blog, Lawfire. Charlie is a retired Major General in the US Air Force (where he served, inter alia, as Deputy Judge Advocate General) and currently serves as Executive Director of Duke Law School’s excellent Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. He is also Professor of Practice at Duke. His bio is here.

Charlie’s blog has been around for about two years. Recent posts discuss the relevance of social justice to the encryption debate, defend prioritizing victims of genocide in US immigration policy, and claim that Chelsea Manning’s commutation is actually likely to harm transgender soldiers.

I often disagree with Charlie about national-security and IHL issues. (I’m on Adil Haque’s side, for example, in the fantastic Just Security debate he and Charlie had last year concerning the new Law of War Manual’s treatment of human shields.) But Charlie’s blogging is unfailingly serious, thoughtful, and informative. If you haven’t already, you should add Lawfire to your newsreader.

You can find Lawfire here.

“We’re on the Air!” Michael Flynn, Sergey Kislyak and the Paradoxes of Diplomatic Immunities

by Mohamed Helal

[Dr. Mohamed Helal is an Assistant Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law & Affiliated Faculty, Mershon Center for International Security Studies – The Ohio State University. From 2002-2003 Dr. Helal was a member of the Cabinet of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, and from 2005-2009 he served on the Cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, and served as the Legal Counsel to the Deputy Foreign Minister of Egypt during 2016.]

I’d like to start this blogpost with a story. Weeks into my diplomatic career, my turn came up to serve as the late-night duty officer. This is usually a junior diplomat who stays late into the evening to man-the-fort and to call the senior leadership if you’re the hapless sap misfortunate enough to have a crisis break out on your watch. Luckily, nothing of consequence happened that evening. I did, however, get a call from an Ambassador serving in an important Middle Eastern country. He wanted to know whether we at HQ had received an encrypted cable that his embassy had sent earlier that day. I had not seen the cable, so instead of asking him for its serial number to check if it had been received, I asked: “What’s the cable about?” The Ambassador chuckled and answered: “I can’t tell you that. We’re on the Air!”

It is an open secret that the movements, communications, and conversations of diplomats are monitored by the intelligence services of states to which they are accredited. This universally recognized truth came to glaring light when it was revealed that US intelligence agencies intercepted calls between Russia’s Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak and incoming National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. During their conversations, it appears that General Flynn assured Ambassador Kislyak that US sanctions against Russia would be relaxed after the inauguration of President Trump. The exposure of these contacts added to the steady drip, drip, drip of reports and rumors about Russia’s role in the 2016 US Presidential Election and the nature of relations between Moscow and the-then Trump campaign and the-now Trump Administration. Naturally, what is now called “The Russian Connection” has unleashed a political maelstrom in Washington. Democrats and the mainstream media are calling for investigations either by Congress or a special prosecutor, Republicans are demanding inquiries into the sources of these leaks, and, operating in his own Kafkaesque alt-reality, a petulant President has tweeted that the whole affair is just Fake News!

Legal and political commentary has evaluated virtually every aspect of this unfolding story. Reporters are asking Who Knew What, and When about Flynn’s conversations with his Russian interlocutor, concerns are being expressed about the competence and effectiveness of the White House Counsel, and even the possibility that General Flynn’s civil rights were violated because his calls were intercepted has been discussed. Conspicuously absent from the conversation, however, is international law. Virtually no one is considering whether tapping Ambassador Kislyak’s calls constituted an internationally wrongful act by the United States.

Spying on Diplomats … Legibus Solutus?

The absence of international law from the conversation is probably attributable to the assumption held by many scholars (here, here, here) that international law has nothing to say about intelligence operations. Spooks, spies, and intelligence agencies, in other words, are claimed to be legibus solutus – operating beyond the pale of international law. Accordingly, it is argued that international law does not prohibit spying on foreign diplomats (here, p. 312-323). While I can see the potential logic of claims that international law does not generally proscribe spying, I am less sympathetic to contentions that international law does not specifically prohibit spying on foreign diplomats by governments to which they are accredited.

This prohibition is enshrined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). True, the VCDR does not explicitly prohibit spying on diplomats. It does not, for instance, say: “receiving states shall not to engage in acts of intelligence gathering or surveillance against the heads of missions or diplomatic agents of the sending states.” Nonetheless, the combined effect of Articles 22, 24, 27, and 30 of the VCDR is to prohibit intelligence gathering by receiving states against the diplomats of sending states, if these acts of intelligence gathering compromise the secrecy of diplomatic correspondences, impair the freedom of communication, or encroach on the inviolability of Embassies or diplomatic residences. (For a similar view, see: here, p.196-197).

Moreover, these protections accorded to diplomats are unequivocal. Like the blanket immunity of diplomats from the civil and criminal jurisdiction of receiving states, the VCDR does not admit any limitations or qualifiers on the inviolability of either official diplomatic communications or correspondences, and diplomatic premises. The policy purpose underlying these principles is that secrecy is essential to the conduct of diplomacy. Indeed, Article 3(1)(d) of the VCDR recognizes that one of the functions of diplomats is to report to their governments on the “conditions and developments in the receiving state.” Unless diplomatic agents are permitted to freely execute their functions, and to communicate secretly on these matters with each other and with their governments, diplomats will become nothing but slightly glamorous news reporters.

Has Diplomatic Immunity Against Spying Fallen into Desuetude?

A potential counter-argument is that my reading of the VCDR is merely tedious textualism that does not recognize the ubiquity of spying against diplomats. But that is exactly why I began this blogpost with a story. I, and anyone with experience in this field, understand that diplomats operate under the constant gaze of the intelligence agencies of receiving states. This reality might suggest that even if the VCDR prohibits spying on diplomats, that principle has fallen into desuetude because it is honored more in the breach than in the observance. (On desuetude, see here). This is essentially how the US Government convinced Congress to enact the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) despite concerns that it might violate the VCDR (See here, p. 545).

While I recognize the merit of this line of argumentation, ultimately, I find it unconvincing. The notion that repeated violations of an established rule of international law could eventually lead to overturning that rule has been deployed, unsuccessfully, on numerous occasions. For instance, some scholars (here) claim that the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter has been invalidated due to repeated state practice that breaches that rule. This claim has been thoroughly refuted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which opined that what matters is not only whether state practice violates an established rule of international law, but whether states justify their practice on a rule or a right that contradicts the established rule (Nicaragua ¶ 207). In the case of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, practice that justifies the use of force on the basis of previously existing exceptions to Article 2(4) serves to confirm, not overturn, the rule.

The same can be said about the inviolability of diplomatic correspondences and communications. First, with the possible exception of the position of the US Government during the 1978 debates on the FISA, states have rarely officially claimed a legal right to spy on diplomats. If anything, almost all states either deny allegations of conducting surveillance against foreign diplomats or refuse to comment on these allegations when they surface in news reports or in leaked documents. Second, the fact that states, including the United States and Russia, have vociferously objected whenever their own diplomats were spied on, or when the inviolability of their diplomatic missions was breached, or when their diplomatic communications were compromised confirms the continued validity of the VCDR rules. Third, international condemnation of espionage against United Nations officials and the Permanent Missions of UN member states further evidences widespread opinio juris in support of the prohibition of spying on diplomats. (See Eileen Denza’s authoritative commentary on the VCDR p. 178-188)

Even with the Digital Revolution, which has led many to declare the death of privacy and secrecy, states continue to invoke the protections enshrined in the VCDR. This is probably attributable to two reasons. First, despite the vast technological leaps in electronic surveillance, there are still lots of secrets, including not only raw information, but also analysis and future plans, that are inaccessible and that governments legitimately want to hide. The norms of diplomatic immunity contribute, even if only little compared to counter-intelligence techniques, to protecting these state secrets. Second, the VCDR is an expression of the most vaunted concept in international law: state sovereignty. Encroaching on diplomatic immunity does not only undermine the ability of diplomats to do their jobs, but also affronts the sovereignty and dignity of states. As the ICJ noted in its condemnation of the barbaric assault on the US Embassy in the Tehran Hostages Case: “There is no more fundamental prerequisite for the conduct of relations between States … than the inviolability of diplomatic envoys and embassies.” (¶ 91)

This all leads to the conclusion that intercepting the telephonic, electronic, encrypted, or other communications of the Russian Ambassador, or any other diplomatic agents, accredited to the United States by US intelligence constitutes an internationally wrongful act. Furthermore, as I’m sure Opinio Juris readers are well aware, domestic legislation or administrative orders, such as FISA and Executive Order 12333, which we are told (here) provide the statutory authorization for intelligence gathering against foreign diplomats, may not be invoked to justify a violation of international legal obligations.

Counter-Espionage and the Paradox of Diplomatic Immunity:

On 29 December 2016, in response to reports of Russian interference in the presidential election, President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats accredited to the United States on allegations of engaging in espionage. This aspect of the Trump-Russia saga demonstrates another one of those unspoken truths about diplomacy. Almost all countries, including the United States (see here and here), exploit the cover of diplomatic immunity to engage in intelligence gathering, either through HUMINT (Human Intelligence) by spies posing as diplomats, or through SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by using embassies as listening posts.

It is unquestionable that international law recognizes the right of all states to protect themselves against spying by other states, including by acts of espionage by foreign diplomats. It is equally undisputed that the VCDR prohibits spying by diplomats, and allows receiving states to declare those diplomats who allegedly engage in espionage persona non grata.

Herein lays the paradox. To uncover espionage by foreign diplomats, receiving states will almost always have to subject those diplomats to some form of surveillance, potentially in violation of the VCDR. In other words, while the VCDR prohibits spying by diplomats and requires them to respect the domestic law of the receiving state, the VCDR fails to provide states with the adequate tools with which to enforce that prohibition and to protect against intelligence gathering by diplomats. This, I suspect, is part of the reason why states have tolerated the practice of surveillance of diplomats. States recognize and uphold the general principles of the inviolability and immunity of diplomatic agents, while expecting and tolerating a degree of encroachment on the confidentiality of diplomatic communications as a necessary antidote to the insatiable temptation to practice humanity’s second oldest profession: spying.


As they have for centuries, diplomats will undoubtedly continue to execute their indispensible functions with the knowledge that their every move is being monitored by the ever-watchful eye of intelligence services. As former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a colorful character who added flare to the sometimes drab business of diplomacy, said: “Everyone is listening to everyone else.”