Home Articles posted by Marko Milanovic

Ukraine Derogates from the ICCPR and the ECHR, Files Fourth Interstate Application against Russia

Published on October 5, 2015        Author: 

I’ve somehow managed to miss this – and I don’t think it has been widely reported – but in June this year Ukraine formally derogated from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. In late August it also filed a new interstate application before the European Court of Human Rights against Russia, and this is the really big one, dealing with events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine after September 2014. A couple of days ago it was communicated by the Court to Russia for a response, as detailed in the Court’s press release. The press release also explains the current state of Ukraine/Russia related litigation; while one of the four interstate cases was discontinued, the three remaining cases come coupled with some 1,400 individual cases on various issues, against Russia, Ukraine, or both. Obviously this whole set of cases – together with those dealing with the downing of MH17, and future Ukraine/Russia cases to come – presents one of the most significant challenges that the Court has ever had to face on how the Convention should apply in armed conflict.

The press release also refers to Ukraine’s derogation from the ICCPR and the ECHR. The text of the detailed notice of derogation can be found here and here. In particular, Ukraine derogated (or at least attempted to derogate) from Articles 5, 6, 8 and 13 of the Convention, and the corresponding articles in the ICCPR. Much of the derogation notice, and the relevant Ukrainian legislation it refers to, deals with detention issues and other restrictions on personal liberty, such as the institution of curfews, as well as changes to judicial and prosecutorial procedures. The most important derogation seems to be the extension of detention without judicial authorization from 72 hours to 30 days, subject to decision of a prosecutor.

Two things struck me as particularly interesting – and particularly unhelpful – after reading the derogation notice.

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Human Rights Treaties and Foreign Surveillance

Published on September 28, 2015        Author: 

A quick heads-up that the final version of my article on Human Rights Treaties and Foreign Surveillance: Privacy in the Digital Age, is now available on the website of the Harvard International Law Journal. The article grew from a series of posts I did here on this topic. The published version also contains a postscript addressing some of the recent developments after the piece was accepted for publication; see here generally for the blog’s coverage of surveillance issues.

In the meantime the UN Human Rights Council has appointed Prof. Joseph Cannataci of the University of Malta as the first special rapporteur on privacy. His candidacy enjoyed significant support from privacy organizations, while his election took no small amount of politicking, with the German president of the Council overruling a proposal made by a five-state consultative group, which favoured Estonian Prof. Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, who was perceived as not being sufficiently critical of mass surveillance practices. Prof. Cannataci, on the other hand, has already come out with harsh criticisms of digital surveillance programmes; he inter alia “described British surveillance oversight as being “a joke”, and said the situation is worse than anything George Orwell could have foreseen.”

Hyperbole aside, Prof. Cannataci has also called for the adoption of a “Geneva Convention” for the Internet “to safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance.” And a couple of days ago Edward Snowden and a group of activists came out with one such proposal, labelled the “International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers,” or the “Snowden Treaty” for short. Only a short and uninformative summary seems to be publicly available at this time.

I must say that I have grave misgivings about such proposals (with the caveat that the proposed draft has not yet been published). First of all, proposing such a new treaty implies that the existing legal framework is incapable of meaningfully regulating surveillance practices, despite the relevant privacy provisions in the ICCPR, the ECHR and the ACHR, and despite existing case law and materials (especially from the Strasbourg Court). In other words, proposing a binding gap-filling instrument assumes that a regulatory gap exists. Secondly, politically it seems exceptionally unlikely that any of the major players in the surveillance sphere (e.g. the US, UK, Russia, China), not to mention authoritarian regimes in many smaller states, would agree to any binding multilateral treaty in the foreseeable future, let alone to a comprehensive “Geneva Convention for the Internet.” Nor will the “Snowden Treaty” label make this proposed agreement any more politically palatable. So it’s just completely unclear to me what a feel-good, pie in the sky proposal such as this one is actually going to achieve, except needlessly waste precious political energy and undermine efforts to regulate surveillance and other intrusive cyber practices under the existing legal framework.

But let’s wait and see. In the meantime, Jessup competitors this year will have a nice, fat surveillance case to litigate before a fictional ICJ, and best of luck to them.


The Drowning Child

Published on September 3, 2015        Author: 

If you haven’t already – read, look, and weep. Then reflect, perhaps, on why and how it is that such images are able to penetrate the walls we erect to shield ourselves from an uncomfortable reality, even while we are rationally fully aware of that reality. Having done so, I could not help but remember this other, hypothetical drowning child (see also here and here):

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

I have always found this argument in its essence to be incredibly compelling, even if I am no utilitarian, and even if Singer’s argument when brought to its fullest is far too demanding of most of us. But even so, as the “migrant” crisis is sweeping Europe, as children are drowning on its shores, I feel that some people who are not moved by the big picture (like this guy) might, perhaps, be moved if they were asked a smaller, more human-scale question: what would you do if you saw a child drowning in a pond?


A Question on Spying and Legal Ethics

Published on September 1, 2015        Author: 

In the wake of the scandal regarding the Croatia/Slovenia arbitration, but also the spats between Australia and East Timor, I have been left wondering with an ethical question: say you are counsel for one of the parties in a case before the ICJ or in an arbitration (but you are not the relevant government’s employee). Imagine if your client comes to you with a document that they could only have obtained by spying on the other party in the proceedings – say a draft of the opposing counsel’s pleadings, or a particularly important piece of undisclosed evidence in the case. Would it be ethical for you to rely on such a document? Would you, say, read your opponent’s draft pleadings? Would it make any difference whether the spying is done against the adversary state or against your opposing counsel directly?

NB: I’m not interested in how the court or tribunal would decide on any issue of admissibility; all I care about is the ethical dimension. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a dilemma I’m currently facing or ever had to face. But my impression is that this sort of stuff must happen occasionally. Having been involved in some interstate cases, I know that some parties take reasonable security measures (e.g. send drafts or documents only in an encrypted format), while others take virtually none. In this post-Snowden era, such spying would seem trivially easy for many intelligence agencies, especially if no dedicated security measures are in place – the Slovenian arbitrator and agent providing an abject lesson.

Comments from readers much appreciated; anonymous comments with regard to this particular post are welcome.


OUP Timeline: The History of International Law

Published on August 17, 2015        Author: 

Our friends in Oxford University Press have created a very interesting visual timeline mapping the history of international law. It’s very interesting in its own right, but can also serve as a valuable teaching tool, especially if your university is subscribed to the Oxford PIL service.

Here is the blurb:

We have created a concise timeline mapping the broad history of public international law with particular attention paid to the signing of major treaties, the foundation of fundamental institutions, the birth of major figures in international law and milestones in the development of some of the field’s best-known doctrines. There are varying opinions on where to start in the history of international law, as well as arguments around periodising the dynamic developments, though for this project we have started our timeline with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Explore some of the major developments in the history of international law and read more by clicking through to freed-up chapters from the Oxford Historical Treaties, the Max Planck Encyclopaedia of Public International Law, relevant book chapters, blog pieces and journal articles.

OUP are happy to receive suggestions from our readers regarding both content and images – please send these directly to John.Louth {AT} .


Some Thoughts on the Serdar Mohammed Appeals Judgment

Published on August 10, 2015        Author: 

In this post I’d like to add a few thoughts on the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Serdar Mohammed, that we already covered on the blog last week (here and here). The case is now heading to the UK Supreme Court, and may also eventually end up in the European Court of Human Rights – although Strasbourg will be looking carefully at the Supreme Court’s judgment even if the case doesn’t find its way to it.

First off, I think everything that can be said about the ‘big issue’ of authority to detain in NIAC has already been said; those already committed to either view are not going to be dissuaded by some novel argument. For my part, I only wish to note that after the Court of Appeal’s (unanimous!) judgment it looks increasingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will overturn the finding of the lower courts (although that of course may still happen), especially bearing in mind the rigour and detail of these lower judgments. It is very difficult for any court to essentially make up rules (in reasoning by implication/analogy/structure or whatever) on who precisely can be detained in NIACs, for how long and under what exact process, in the absence of any meaningful legislative guidance. This is not a gap that most judges would feel comfortable in filling, especially when easy analogies to IACs or (much worse, between targeting and detention) break down.

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Breaking: Court of Appeal Affirms Serdar Mohammed

Published on July 30, 2015        Author: 

Breaking news: today the English Court of Appeal  unanimously affirmed Leggatt J’s judgment in Serdar Mohammed v. MoD, finding that IHL does not contain authority to detain in non-international armed conflicts. Full (and very lengthy) judgment available here; our earlier coverage is here. Happy to report that some of our earlier posts (three I think) were cited by the Court. Obviously I haven’t yet read all of the decision, but we will have plenty of commentary in the days to follow.  I imagine an appeal to the Supreme Court is virtually inevitable.


Living Instruments, Judicial Impotence, and the Trajectories of Gay Rights in Europe and in the United States

Published on July 23, 2015        Author: 

Evolutionary or dynamic interpretation is one of those perennial ‘big’ topics, which we e.g. recently dealt with in our book discussion on Eirik Bjorge’s recent work on the topic. Judicial pronouncements on LGBT rights are an excellent example of this phenomenon (for some of my earlier thoughts on this, see here). In particular, on 26 June the US Supreme Court rendered its blockbuster ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held (per Justice Kennedy, and by 5 votes to 4) that the US Constitution requires full marriage equality between same-sex and different-sex couples. On reading this judgment, as well as some of the recent cases on similar questions before the European Court of Human Rights, I was struck by several points on the practical realities of dynamic interpretation that I’d like to raise in this post.

First, it really is striking that despite the many differences in the text of the relevant instruments, their history, the institutional make-up or legal culture generally, US and European courts both look at gay rights generally (or the issue of gay marriage specifically) through the same analytical lenses: on the one hand there’s private life, family life or individual liberty (or in US parlance substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution); on the other hand, there’s equality or non-discrimination. And while there are many differences in the concrete legal tests being applied (e.g. proportionality in Europe, tiered levels of scrutiny in the US), there are many conceptual similarities as well.

Second, in both Europe and in the US most gay rights cases, whether under privacy/liberty or under equality, boil down to one basic, fundamental problem: if a right or legitimate interest is interfered with or restricted by the state (e.g. gays are denied the right to marry), what is the justification offered by the state for that restriction, and how then should a court assess that justification. In particular, can such a restriction ever be justified by reference to public morals, or tradition, or disapproval of a particular group or behaviour alone, absent any objectively identifiable, concrete individual or societal harm. One reason why Obergefell came out the way it did was that the opponents of gay marriage were simply unable to articulate any concrete harm to anyone; each argument they tried to make of that type was easily disprovable (e.g. if marriage is inextricably tied to procreation, why then do we allow infertile couples to get married, etc. – for an example of pretty brutal judicial questioning along these lines, one need only listen to this oral argument before Judge Richard Posner, and read this judgment.)

In other words, the big question is whether it would ever be legitimate to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples simply because ‘we’ (say the majority in a popularly elected parliament) believe that same-sex couples are icky and yucky. Is a feeling or sentiment of yuckiness (or sinfulness, turpitude, taboo, whatever) enough to deny people legal rights? Many lawyers would stop here and simply say that such irrational considerations cannot form the basis for running a legal system. But wait – in the European Convention (unlike in the US Bill of Rights) we actually have explicit references to the protection of morals in the limitation clauses of several articles, including Article 8. And in fact the Court has said, for example, that it’s fine to keep a person in prison simply because that person chooses to walk in public without wearing any clothes, even though he causes no concrete harm to others in so doing – remember that naked rambler dude? He’s still naked, and still in prison (9 years on! – see here and here for very recent developments). And if yuckiness alone does not suffice, what then of polygamy or consensual adult incest and the like (and we do have cases like that), or some other parade of horribles?

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The Shameful Twenty Years of Srebrenica

Published on July 13, 2015        Author: 

In the great catalogue of human misery, the July 1995 Srebrenica genocide merits a special mention. But as horrible as the slaughter of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys was – unquestionably the worst crime of the whole brutal Bosnian conflict – the repeated, ongoing and unrelenting denial of the crime is if not worse, then at least as depressing. Today, twenty years on, that revisionist denial is strongest where it matters – in Republika Srpska and in Serbia – and its strength demonstrates the continued, long-term inability of these communities to come to terms with the past.

The denial is manifold, in forms both hard and soft. It ranges from a complete rejection that any crime took place, to disputing the number of victims or who the victims were, to emphasizing crimes against Serbs around Srebrenica or inflating the numbers of Serbs killed, to disputing the characterization of the crime as genocide as if that makes some actual moral difference. And, it needs to be said, that denial is virtually unaffected by whatever the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the International Court of Justice said on the matter.

To demonstrate the scale of denial in cold, hard numbers, it suffices to take a look at a February 2012 survey of public opinion in Bosnia, sponsored by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and the OSCE and conducted by Ipsos Strategic Marketing (detailed results on file with me). The survey found that of the (mostly Serb) population of the Republika Srpska only 59.2% say that they even heard of a massacre in Srebrenica, while only 34.8% of the people who say that they’ve heard of the crime believe that it actually happened. Thus, of the whole RS population 40.8% say they’ve never even heard of any massacre in Srebrenica, 38.6% say that they’ve heard of it but that it never happened, and only 20.6% believe it did. That, dear readers, is what ‘truth and reconciliation’ in today’s Bosnia look like.

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The Nagorno-Karabakh Cases

Published on June 23, 2015        Author: 

Last week I wrote about one particular aspect of the recent Grand Chamber judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in two cases dealing with the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Chiragov and Others v. Armenia, no. 13216/05 and Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan, no. 40167/06, namely the Court’s conclusion that belligerent occupation necessarily requires troops on the ground. I also promised a more comprehensive look at the two (very important) judgments, and here it is. The two cases concerned the aftermath in the conflict, in the sense that they dealt with the right of persons displaced by the conflict to access their property (under Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the Convention), rather than with the conflict itself, which was outside the Court’s temporal jurisdiction. That said, there are numerous noteworthy aspects of these two judgments.

First, there is the cases’ basic structure. Both cases were brought by individuals, but there are more than a thousand other applications pending before the Court with essentially the same issues. While these are formally not pilot judgments in the sense the Court uses the term, they are in fact test cases on the basis of which the Court is set to resolve all of the other pending cases, unless the parties choose to settle them first. And while the cases were brought by individuals, they have a strong interstate dimension, not only because of their politically controversial subject-matter, but because Armenia and Azerbaijan both intervened as third parties in the case in which the other state was the respondent (i.e. Armenia intervened in Sargasyan and Azerbaijan in Chiragov). These were, if you will, interstate cases by proxy.

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