Recent Posts

Guest Post: Pesky Questions of International Law: What’s the basis for air strikes in Syria?

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU-SPS.]

President Obama’s speech on September 10th raised many legal issues, including, whether there needs to be added Congressional authorization for the use of force, or one can utilize the pre-existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) that Congress granted after 9/11 (see Deborah Pearlstein’s post and Peter Spiro’s).  But his speech also raised profound questions at a second level – that of public international law (touched upon by Kevin Jon Heller).

This may not seize the attention of the American public, but surely coalition partners would ask these questions:  what was Obama’s basis for the legality of air strikes in Syria?

It is somewhat troubling that President Obama took the step of supporting air strikes in Syria, without articulating any clear legal foundation at the international level.  Just to be clear, the issue of air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) does not raise similar questions, as Iraq had earlier consented to the use of force.

There are a number of possible legal rationales for air strikes in Syria, but the U.S. needs to make the case under one of these grounds.  Such a legal foundation was not well-articulated in President Obama’s speech.  Continue reading…

Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya

by Kevin Jon Heller

On the record, US officials invariably defend even the most indefensible IDF uses of force in Gaza, most often parroting the Israeli line that the IDF does everything it can to spare civilian lives and that Hamas’s use of human shields is responsible for any innocent civilians the IDF does kill.

When speaking anonymously, however, those same officials tell a very different story.

Exhibit A: an absolutely devastating new article in Al Jazeera America about Israel’s destruction of Shujaiya in Gaza, which involved 258 IDF artillery pieces firing 7,000 high-explosive shells into the neighborhood, including 4,800 shells in seven hours. I’m not sure I’ve ever read quite such damning statements about the IDF’s tactics, going far beyond John Kerry’s widely reported sarcastic comment that the attack was “a hell of a pinpoint operation.” Here is a snippet from the article:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155 mm howitzer), each of which fires three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the report. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy Bejesus,” exclaimed retired Lt. General Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate, who is veteran of two wars and now the Chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Gard added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

[snip]

Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, based on the rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya overnight Sunday, IDF commanders weren’t precisely targeting Palestinian military formations, as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at “cratering” the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the military summaries of IDF operations, Israel’s artillery had used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units, but then poured in everything they had — in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible — a walking barrage isn’t.”

The Israelis’ own defense of their action reinforced the belief among some senior U.S. officers that artillery fire into Shujaiya had been indiscriminate. That’s because the Israelis explained the civilian casualty toll on the basis that the neighborhood’s non-combatant population had been used as “human shields” because they had been “ordered to stay” in their homes by Hamas after the IDF had warned them to leave.

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat. But that’s not what the IDF did in Shujaiya on July 21. Human shields? C’mon, just own up to it.”

As I said, stunning stuff. And utterly damning of the IDF — the “most moral army in the world.” It’s just a shame the US government won’t be more open with what it really thinks about the IDF’s actions. Perhaps then Israel wouldn’t feel free to use force against Palestine with impunity.

NOTE: After reading the article in Al Jazeera America, make sure to read Shane Darcy’s important post at EJIL: Talk! discussing a recent decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that upholds the legality of collective punishment.

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, August 25, 2014

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Asia

Europe

Middle East and Northern Africa

Americas

Oceania

UN

Events and Announcements: August 24, 2014

by An Hertogen

  • International Law in Practice is a four-day programme run by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL), which provides a broad introduction to key issues in international and comparative law – from public to private and from commercial to human rights. The course is unique in that it introduces participants to international law, as broadly understood and as it arises in practice. Led by many of the Institute’s leading researchers and practitioners, the course is ideal for those in the early years of legal practice, those working in governmental and non-governmental organisations with legal elements to their work, and students who are about to commence a postgraduate degree in aspects of international law. The course is accredited for 28.5 CPD points. For more details and to book online, please visit www.biicl.org/event/1054
  • On September 18-19, 2014, the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and PluriCourts – Centre for the Study of the Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order at the University of Oslo Faculty of Law will hold a symposium on “Legitimacy and International Courts,” in Baltimore. The symposium, which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Center, will bring together experts on specific courts and tribunals including the ICJ, WTO, ECJ, ECHR, Inter-American Court, ICSID, ITLOS, and ICC and specific themes including democracy, effectiveness, and judicial selection. The goal of the conference and the book to follow is to think comprehensively and comparatively about the legitimacy of international courts and tribunals. What can we learn from the experiences of specific courts and to what extent are lessons from one court generalizable to other courts? The event is free and open to the public. The program is available here. Please RSVP here.​

Last week’s events and announcements can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

 

Weekend Roundup: August 16-22, 2014

by An Hertogen

This week  on Opinio Juris, we had the final instalments of our Emerging Voices symposium, with a post by Tamar Meshel on awakening the “Sleeping Beauty of the Peace Palace” and one by Mélanie Vianney-Liaud on the controversy surrounding the definition of the Cambodian genocide at the ECCC.

More definitional issues arose in Kevin’s post discussing Britain’s expanded definition on terrorism, which now includes watching the video of James Foley’s beheading.

In other posts, Chris blogged about the quilt maps of sovereignty in the Baarles, Deborah argued why shifting alliances in the Middle East matter, Julian renewed his argument that Argentina has no case against the US in its latest ICJ claim, and Duncan commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention with the question whether there is new IHL to be made and what is should be.

Finally, Jessica wrapped up the news and listed events and announcements.

Many thanks to our guest posters and have a nice weekend!

IHL’s Era of Application?

by Duncan Hollis

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the first Geneva Convention — the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.  12 States signed it on August 22, 1864, and the treaty went on to have 57 parties before being replaced by later Geneva Conventions in 1906, 1929 and 1949.  The ICRC is using the occasion to make a call for more action on international humanitarian law and to spread knowledge about that law more generally (including a 4 minute video on the Rules of War in a Nutshell).  

It’s interesting to think about the full arc of IHL that this anniversary represents. It seems we’ve gone from decades of iteration — where States and others worked to hammer out what rules actually exist — to what is now much more an era of application.  Today’s IHL debates (many of which we’ve hosted here in recent weeks) regularly revolve around where, when and how specific rules apply to particular cases.  Or, they debate which rules exist only in treaty form versus those that have the status of customary international law.  Even in areas of new technology, the prevailing effort is to explain how existing rules govern by analogy (see, e.g., the Tallinn Manual).  These are all important and even laudatory causes.  But it does leave me with a question:  Is the corpus of IHL now largely complete, or should we expect another round of law generation akin to the Geneva Convention projects of 150 and 75 years ago?  Simply put, is there any new IHL to be made, and, if so, what should it be?   

I’ve Thought About It Some More: And I Still Think Argentina’s World Court Lawsuit Against the U.S. is Bogus

by Julian Ku

Reasonable people can disagree about the legal merits of U.S. court judgments against Argentina requiring it to pay holdout creditor hedge funds. But I can’t say the same about Argentina’s recently announced claim against the United States at the International Court of Justice. Based on Argentina’s own description of its legal arguments, I stand by my earlier assessment: Argentina’s international law claim against the United States is frivolous and would have almost no chance of succeeding, even if Argentina somehow convinced the U.S. to accept ICJ jurisdiction.

Although Argentina’s complaint to the ICJ has not been publicly released, it is likely that Argentina will accuse the U.S. of allowing its court system to violate Argentina’s immunity rights as a nation-state and to interfere in Argentina’s ability to pay its non-holdout creditors through U.S. banks.

What makes this claim ridiculous is that Argentina chose to grant the U.S. judicial system a wide-ranging jurisdiction over bonds it sold to private investors. When issuing those bonds, Argentina promised that it had “irrevocably agreed not to claim and has irrevocably waived” immunity “to the fullest extent permitted by the laws of the U.S. and New York. Argentina also agreed to allow “any of its revenues, assets or properties” to be subject to judicial execution and enforcement to whatever degree permitted by U.S. law.

Okay, This Time Britain Really Has Killed Terrorism (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last November, I wrote a post entitled “Terrorism Is Dead, and Britain Has Killed It.” I chose that title because I couldn’t imagine a conception of terrorism more absurd than the one argued by the British government and accepted by a Divisional Court: namely, that David Miranda’s mere possession of documents illegally obtained by Edward Snowden qualified as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000.

I obviously need to expand my imagination.

Why? Because the British government’s is now arguing that merely watching the video of James Foley’s execution is terrorism. From the Telegraph:

Viewing or sharing the harrowing video of James Foley’s beheading online could be regarded as a terrorist offence, Scotland Yard has warned.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said specialists from the Counter Terrorism unit were continuing to examine the footage in order to look for clues as to the identity of the suspected British jihadist but said the public should refrain from viewing the video.

In a statement a spokesman said: “We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe explained that while viewing the video was technically a crime, his officers would be more focused on tracking down those who shared the footage or glorified it.

Um, no — viewing the Foley video is not “technically a crime.” Foley’s execution is a horrific act by a horrific organisation. But there is absolutely no plausible argument that merely watching a video of it qualifies as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000 — not even in light of the awful Miranda judgment. We can see why by quoting the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation‘s summary of that case:

What the Miranda judgment reveals is that the publication (or threatened publication) of words may equally constitute terrorist action. It seems that the writing of a book, an article or a blog may therefore amount to terrorism if publication is “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, “designed to influence the government” and liable to endanger life or create a serious risk to health or safety.

There are two obvious problems with considering the mere act of watching the Foley video an act of terrorism. First, watching the video is not “liable to endanger life or create a serious risk of health or safety,” as required by s 1(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 — unless, of course, we think that anyone who watches it will somehow magically be transformed into an ISIS terrorist. Second, although I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch the savage murder of an innocent person, individuals are clearly not watching the video “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” or because they intend “to influence the government.” So no, watching the Foley video does not qualify as a terrorist act under s 1(1).

Nor does merely watching the Foley video violate any of the substantive offences in either the Terrorism Act 2000 or the Terrorism Act 2006. (Section 1(1) is not an offence in itself; it provides the definition of terrorism for the substantive offences.) In terms of the Terrorism Act 2000, it’s not “support” under s 12, because that section requires the defendant to have “invite[d] support for a proscribed organisation.” It’s not “use and possession” under s 16, because that section, like s 1(1), requires the specific intent to promote terrorism. It’s not “possession for terrorist purposes” under s 57, because merely having the Foley video on a computer (which streaming does not even involve) does not “give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” And it’s not “collection of information” under s 58, because an execution video, though disgusting, is not “a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Merely watching the Foley video also does not run afoul of the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 1 criminalises “encouragement of terrorism,” but it applies only to those who “publish” a statement that encourages “the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.” Watching a video is not publication. For similar reasons, watching a video does not qualify as “dissemination of terrorist publications” under s 2 — not even in light of s 2(2)(f), which criminalises possessing a terrorist publication “with a view to its” dissemination.

In his most recent report, the Independent Reviewer wrote that “[a] statutory definition [of terrorism] so broad that the enforcement authorities resort to their own rules of thumb in order to make sense of it is unhelpful.” I think the Metropolitan Police’s argument about the Foley video makes his point.

NOTE: I have updated the post in response to Adrian Hunt‘s excellent comment below, which deserves to be read in full.

A Summer of Shifting Alliances?

by Deborah Pearlstein

Just keeping up with the news on international terrorism/counterterrorism this summer could be a full time job. Among many other potentially significant reports, I wanted to highlight this statement recently released by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often described by U.S. officials as the branch of Al Qaeda that currently poses the greatest threat to the United States. The AQAP statement announces the group’s support for the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL).

“We announce solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade. Their blood and injuries are ours and we will surely support them…. We assert to the Islamic Nation [all Muslims worldwide] that we stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers.”

The statement goes on to offer various bits of non-rocket-science tactical advice to the Islamic State – watch out for spies, don’t assume electronic communications are unmonitored, digging trenches can help protect against the impact of shelling (thanks General Pershing). While I can’t generally vouch for the journalistic practices of the Yemen Times (on which I’m relying for the AQAP statement), this seems a simple direct quotation.

Why does this matter? A few reasons potentially. First, core Al Qaeda (led by Al Zawahiri) has condemned ISIL/the Islamic State and dissociated itself with the group. It is unclear how core Al Qaeda will take this move by one of its branches to voice its support for ISIL, but if AQAP intends to signal a real move away from core Al Qaeda, it would be another significant weakening of Al Qaeda’s regional and international capabilities (and a significant boost to ISIL). Second, AQAP has long been understood by the United States as a force “associated with” Al Qaeda for purposes of coverage by the statutory AUMF (authorizing the President to use force – targeting, detention, etc. – against those groups that attacked us on 9/11). If AQAP is moving to break its association with core Al Qaeda, the statutory argument that AQAP remains one of groups Congress meant to authorize force against in 2001 becomes much weaker. Given that the United States has reportedly continued to conduct targeting operations against AQAP forces in Yemen, this poses a potentially significant legal wrinkle in administration arguments that it enjoys statutory authorization for those operations. On the other hand, it would strengthen any case the administration might make to Congress for new authority to use force against ISIL and its associates. Will the administration seek such new congressional authority, particularly when the War Powers Act 60-90 day clock runs on current U.S. operations in Iraq (after which the President is required to seek congressional authorization)? Stay tuned.

Emerging Voices: Controversy on the Definition of the Cambodian Genocide at the ECCC

by Melanie Vianney-Liaud

[Mélanie Vianney-Liaud is a PhD Candidate in International Law at the Aix-Marseille University in France.]

Many international Human Rights authorities, including the United Nations General Assembly talked about the “Cambodian genocide” to designate the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Yet, while the term “genocide” undoubtedly has considerable appeal, it turns out to be legally inappropriate to describe the massacre of 1.7 million of Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. At the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – the court in charge of trying the Khmer Rouge – the indictment of the last surviving Khmer Rouge senior leaders, known as “Case 002”, includes very limited genocide charges, only with respect to crimes committed on two minority groups: the Cham and the Vietnamese. Predictably, this decision disappointed many victims.

The trial began in June 2011. However, in September 2011, the Trial Chamber decided to sever Case 002 into smaller trials and limited the scope of the first trial to the evacuation of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and movements of population in other regions of Cambodia. The genocide charges were excluded from the scope of this first trial. On August 7, 2014, the Chamber found the Accused guilty to have committed the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts through their participation in policies to forcibly displace people. It sentenced them life imprisonment.

The Accused are currently trying within a second trial whose scope includes the genocide charges. Since this trial has started on July 30, 2014, it seems appropriate to clarify some of the complexities of the crime of genocide, generated by the specificities of the Cambodian context and the legal framework of the ECCC.

Genocide has been defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Repression of the Crime of Genocide as requiring the intentional destruction of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such”. The enumeration of specific protected groups implies that the perpetrators’ conception of the victim group bears some relation to one of these protected groups. The Khmer Rouge regime is known for its system of terror and arbitrariness. Conditions of living were so extreme that a substantial part of the population died without that seemed to be directly imputable to group-based persecutions. However, indications of the targeting of particular groups undeniably exist in the case of the Khmer Rouge. This is the case for example, and among others, of the group of educated people and city dwellers referred to as “new people” by the Khmer Rouge. Contrary to “base people,” “new people” did not join the Khmer Rouge revolution prior to April 17, 1975 when Phnom Penh fell into Khmer Rouge’s hands. Forcibly transferred from cities to countryside, “new people” members were often targeted based on this identity (Indictment, § 227). This group however, does not fall under the listed classification defined in the Genocide Convention as the distinction made by the Khmer Rouge was based on an individual’s socioeconomic background.

Thus, although the Khmer Rouge had policies of group discrimination, both in regard to ethnic minorities as well as with respect to groups identified within the ethnic Khmer- majority, the characterization of genocide within the definition of the Convention only applies to crimes committed on minority groups. Many victims have therefore seen the crimes for which they have suffered be excluded from the characterization of the “crime of crimes,” even though they are victims of crimes of the same gravity as those committed against the minorities.

The definition introduced by the Genocide Convention is too narrow to mirror the historical analysis of the Khmer Rouge criminal phenomenon. The fact that the Khmer Rouge targeted groups within the Khmer-majority population shows that the strict enumeration of protected groups is inappropriate. The question that arises then is whether it would be conceivable to have this definition evolved to correspond with the social reality of the “Cambodian genocide”.

Cambodia ratified the Genocide Convention in 1949. Consequently, since its entry into force in 1951, Cambodia has been submitted to the conventional obligation to “enact (…) the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the Convention” (Convention, Article V). However, under the Khmer Rouge, the Convention had not been received into national law yet. This reception only occurred in 2001, with the creation of the ECCC. The 2003 international agreement between the United Nations and Cambodia and the 2004 amended domestic law which establish the court, provide both for its jurisdiction over the crime of genocide “as defined in the 1948 Convention.” However, and despite these provisions, the domestic law then gives a definition of the crime of genocide that differs in key points from the definition set out in the Convention.

A state is not prohibited by the 1948 Convention from adopting a broader definition of genocide. The Convention only adopted by a convention a principle which already existed in international customary law. Thus, the reception of the Convention into national legal orders has often resulted in a broadening of the definition of the crime. France, for instance, has gone further adding the “group determined by any (…) arbitrary criterion” to the groups protected by the Convention (French Penal Code, Article 211-1).

In the particular case of the ECCC however, the differences between the Convention and the Law have important implications for its subject-matter jurisdiction. In the English version of the ECCC Law, with regard to the list of underlying crimes, the Law indeed replaces the expression “any of the following acts” with “any acts” and the phrase ‘as such’ referring to “group” in the Genocide Convention with ‘such as’ but referring to “acts”. (more…)

A Tale of Two Baarles: Crazy-Quilt Maps and Sovereignty Over Certain Frontier Land

by Chris Borgen

Map credit: Wikimedia Commons via Radiolab

Map credit: Wikimedia Commons via Radiolab

Radiolab has  posted an informative and entertaining essay entitled “How to Cross 5 International Borders in 1 Minute without Sweating.” It describes the intertwined municipalities of the Dutch town Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian town Baarle-Hertog. Here’s the evocative description by Robert Krulwich of Radiolab:

The hunky yellow bit labeled “H1″ (for Hartog) toward the bottom is mostly the Belgian town. But notice those little white bits inside the yellow — labeled “N1, N2, N3″ — those are little patches of the Dutch town (N for Nassau). The two towns are not geographically separate. Instead, they’re like M&M’s in a candy bowl. There are 22 distinct Belgian bits, and a dozen or so Dutch bits, and they are sprinkled together; so sometimes you’ve got bits of Belgium inside Dutch areas, and sometimes Dutch patches inside Belgian neighborhoods. They vary in size. The largest is 1.54 square kilometers, the smallest, an empty field, is 2,632 square meters.

Krulwich is correct to note that in the Middle Ages “Checkerboard maps were common.” One reason they were common was that feudalism had a different conception of sovereignty than the “modern” conception of sovereignty that became prevalent in the years following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Rather than strictly territorial, medieval sovereignty was in part relational, between lords and subjects as well as between and among varying levels of nobility. With an emphasis on personal loyalty and duty, the feudal conception of sovereignty was like a network of individuals with multiple linkages and relationships.  Displaying such relationships as a territorial map with bold-line boundaries results in a crazy quilt that may actually obscure the complex interwoven relationships.

But the Westphalian emphasis on territorial sovereignty called for such bold-line maps. Areas that started as territorial patchworks were usually consolidated and rationalized. Krulwich continues:

But for some reason, writes Alastair Bonnet in his new book, Unruly Places, it didn’t [happen here]. During Napoleon’s time, villages were swept cleanly into one nation or another, the borders tidied up, but apparently — and no one can quite explain why — Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog escaped the broom. Maybe they were too small, too unimportant, but they made it through, their mosaic-ness intact, becoming, Bonnet says, a “living laboratory of medieval micro-borders.”

For more detail on the land grants, treaties, planning commissions, and other aspects of the history of these two towns, see this website.

This mosaic of sovereignty has led to some incredible results. In a 2008 post on Baarle-Hertog/ Baarle-Nassau,  BLDGBLOG reported that:

Sarah Laitner, at the Financial Times, adds that “women are able to choose the nationality of their child depending on the location of the room in which they give birth.”

For more about the administration of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau, see this .pdf.

The contested status of two specific plots created by these micro-borders led to a dispute before the International Court of Justice, Sovereignty over Certain Frontier Land (Belgium/ Netherlands). The ICJ found that the plots in question were under Belgian sovereignty.

While perhaps the most complex territorial enclave, the two Baarles are not the only examples; see  the website European Small Exclaves. You can also see more about Swiss cheese sovereignties and cartographic discrepancies in this post I wrote a while back. (And the part about cartographic discrepencies should really be considered by that guy trying to found a Kingdom of North Sudan for his daughter…)

 

 

Emerging Voices: Interstate Arbitration: Awakening the “Sleeping Beauty of the Peace Palace”

by Tamar Meshel

[Tamar Meshel is an SJD Candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.]

In the early 1990s, a trend emerged among international legal scholars and practitioners aimed at reviving the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and, by extension, the use of arbitration to resolve interstate disputes peacefully. The PCA was created during the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, following a century of successful interstate arbitrations such as those between the United States and Great Britain under the Jay Treaty and the Treaty of Ghent, and it reflected the high hopes of the conference participants that the institution would bring about world peace through arbitration. However, after a decade or two of glory, the PCA gradually fell into disuse as states lost interest in arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism, and it became aptly known as the “Sleeping Beauty of the Peace Palace” (Sam Muller & Wim Mijs, “The Flame Rekindled” (1993) 6(2) Leiden Journal of International Law). There are many political, historical, and legal rationales for this downturn, including the outbreak of the two World Wars, changes in the international political system, and the creation of the PCIJ and ICJ. This post focuses on another development that, while perhaps less recognized, is arguably responsible in part for the decline of interstate arbitrations during the 20th century, and is still relevant today. This development is the gradual ‘judicialization’ or ‘legalization’ of interstate arbitration to the point of being effectively equated with judicial settlement and both its original nature and distinctive qualities becoming imperceptible and inconsequential.

The evolution of interstate arbitration

The origins of arbitration can be traced back to ancient Greece, where arbitrators were seen as quasi-diplomats rather than judges, and could therefore “consider the equity of the case, whereas a judge is bound by the letter of the law” (Aristotle, cited in M.C.W. Pinto, “The Prospects for International Arbitration: Inter-state Disputes” in A.H.A. Soons, ed, International Arbitration: Past and Prospects (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1990)). Arbitration continued to be used during the Middle Ages to end wars by reconciling the warring parties, and when the modern era of interstate arbitration began with the signing of the 1794 Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States, it was perceived as a hybrid process that combined legal proceedings with diplomatic negotiations. For instance, some of the disputes submitted to arbitration under the Jay Treaty were to be decided according to “justice, equity, and the laws of nations”, and their successful settlement was largely credited to the commissioners’ “spirit of negotiation and compromise”. While they rendered binding decisions and applied legal principles, the commissioners also “act[ed] to some extent as negotiators rather than as judges … temper[ed] justice with diplomacy [in order] to give a measure of satisfaction to both sides” (Pinto, 1990).

This perception of interstate arbitration persisted in the first decades of the 20th century. Some states, for instance, distinguished between judicial settlement, designed to resolve “legal disputes”, and arbitration, designed to resolve all other disputes ex aequo et bono while “having regard to the general principles of international law” (e.g., the 1928 Geneva General Act for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (.pdf); the 1957 European Convention for the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes). Arbitrators were also “prepared to waive a strict application of the law in order to achieve an acceptable settlement” in interstate disputes, such as the 1909 Casablanca case and the 1910 North Atlantic Fisheries case (M.C.W. Pinto, “Structure, Process, Outcome: Thoughts on the ‘Essence’ of International Arbitration” (1993) 6 Leiden Journal of International Law). However, as a result of the growing global quest during the 20th century for “orderly” interstate dispute settlement through the application of law, this quasi-diplomatic use of interstate arbitration gradually fell into disuse, and the dominant perception became that of the International Law Commission, which viewed it as “a procedure for the settlement of disputes between States … on the basis of law” (Pinto, 1990 (.pdf)). Accordingly, states increasingly restricted or excluded the power of arbitrators to decide disputes on the basis of equity or non-legal considerations and in all but a few rare, yet successful, cases (e.g., the 1968 Rann of Kutch arbitration; the 1986 Guinea-Guinea Bissau arbitration) arbitrators followed suit. The perception that only ‘judicial’ arbitration based on law should be “arbitration properly so called” thus became the conventional wisdom, even though in some cases, such as the 1977 Beagle Channel arbitration, it failed to resolve the parties’ dispute (Pinto, 1990, 1993). (more…)