I feel indebted to Carlos Esposito and Philip Allott who have taken so much of their – precious – time to engage with the argument developed in my book Formalism and the Sources of International Law. In a professional community where constant solicitation and correlative overcommitment have become pathological, taking pains to engage with and constructively criticize peers’ works amounts to a manifestation of respect which, coming from such highly esteemed figures, is greatly flattering. I simultaneously rejoice at the fact that their – deliciously phrased and doled out – criticisms touch on the very points which, in my view, have always deserved to be debated across the interpretative community of international law. In this brief rejoinder, I shall limit myself to mention a few of them and sketch out my thoughts on the matter.
Comment on d’Aspremont’s Formalism and the Sources of International Law: We Don’t Just Talk Past Each Other; We Disagree!
Jean d’Aspremont is concerned with the effects of the Babel syndrome created by legal pluralism. He is bewildered that international scholars ‘talk past each other’: the impression that international legal scholarship has become “a cluster of different scholarly communities, each using different criteria for the ascertainment of international legal rules” (3). This is the justification for his impressive intellectual effort to present a ‘theory of the ascertainment of legal rules’ and engage in the politics of formalism (29).
His theory is rooted in Herbert Hart’s famous source and social theses, which are reinterpreted by d’Aspremont to fit international law. In d’Aspremont’s theory, “law-ascertainment in international law must be conceived independently of article 38 [of the ICJ Statute], which was not only conceived to serve another purpose, but also leaves too much room for non-formal law-ascertainment”(150). He favours the use of written linguistic indicators (formal law-ascertainment is only possible for rules enshrined in a written instrument) to guarantee formal law-ascertainment in international law and move away from intent-based systems to determine international legal rules.
D’Aspremont affirms that his proposal amounts to “a complete reversal of our theoretical perspectives which allows the ascertainment of treaties and other international legal acts to do away with the speculations inherent in the establishment of intent and makes it exclusively dependent on the use of linguistic indicators” (192). The source thesis, by which rules are ascertained through their pedigree, is completed by the social thesis, which provides the foundations for the formal law-ascertainment of rules in the social practice of law-applying authorities. That is, in a nutshell, D’Aspremont’s recipe to secure true common legal language in “an age of pluralized normativity” (221), a goal that cannot be achieved by other techniques of law identification based on impact, compliance, process, or intent.
A blog post is, of course, not the ideal medium to review in detail the many interesting points raised by d’Aspremont in his encyclopedic, often complex, but absolutely remarkable piece of scholarship. I would rather advance three interconnected comments on some of the more controversial aspects of his book.
Comments on Jean d’Aspremont, Formalism and the Sources of International Law. A Theory of the Ascertainment of Legal Rules
Jean d’Aspremont’s book evokes subliminally two recurring nightmares – one social, one intellectual. Socially, it reminds us of the failure of law to secure its proper place in international society. Intellectually, it reminds us of the part played by the modern university in the disempowering of the human mind.
The conventions of monograph-writing require that the author survey the territory in which he or she intends to plant something new – employed, as John Locke modestly said of himself, ‘as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge’. In fact, as d’Aspremont himself notes, most self-conscious intellectual innovators, before the advent of the modern university, did not devote much explicit effort to disposing of the writings of their predecessors. Locke himself certainly did not do so, either in the Essay or the Two Treatises.
In the present case, ‘clearing the ground a little’ produces a mountain of footnotes listing hundreds of writings expressing, and endlessly recycling, every conceivable view, and many inconceivable views, about the essence of International Law, or its lack of an essence. It requires the author to sift through the output of an industrial-scale intellectual effort, to sort out the countless academic sects (many of them blessed with brand-names ending in -ism), and to locate them in relation to each other. And it requires him to perform the impossible – but academically expected – task of making sober judgments about their relative merits.
And, all the while, the wicked world goes on its merry way to ruin. Why would anyone choose to write creatively and intelligently about the philosophy of International Law? They are unlikely to be heard by those who exercise international public power – politicians, diplomats, civil servants, intergovernmental officials, international judges and arbitrators, legal practitioners – the international ruling class, a self-satisfied and self-regarding conspiracy, many of whose members have the crudest ideas about the nature of law, and many of whose members relentlessly abuse public power, national and international.
It is important to understand two things. Holders of public power are the product of ideas, ideas that they did not invent. Holders of public power use other people’s ideas as instruments of power. If a more or less abstract idea might be useful to them, they will appropriate it – ideas of religion or philosophy or morality or political theory or natural science or human psychology – not only to justify their possession of power but also to exercise that power more efficiently. Words are power. Words are weapons. The power of the powerful includes the power to incorporate ideas into the language of power.
I won’t comment in detail on the intricacies of d’Aspremont’s exposition. But I must say that I would differ from some of his accounts and judgments of legal philosophies and theoretical positions with which I am myself familiar. (I’m sorry that he devotes respectful attention to Herbert Hart and Ludwig Wittgenstein – both of them being of minimal continuing intellectual significance.) For me, the book is important at a more general level. The important question is – what general lessons can we learn from d’Aspremont’s heroic work of synthesis and analysis?
Prolegomena: A paradox
At the origin of the inquiry found in the book under discussion (whose introduction is available for download here) lies a paradox. This paradox can be spelled out as follows. Nothing has been more ontologically threatening for international law – and for the professional community organized around it – than the rampant contemporary post-ontological mindset of the international legal scholarship. The (self-proclaimed) post-ontological era – and the correlative broadening of the substantive agenda of research that has accompanied it – have aggravated the impoverishment of our state of reflection about the theory of sources.
Indeed, having become too busy reflecting on legitimacy, accountability, participation, transparency or newly obsessed by epistemological and sociological introspection, international lawyers – and especially international legal scholars – have come to severely neglect the thinking about the most elementary tool of cognition of their object of study: the theory of sources. Said differently, the post-ontological era of international law has witnessed a move away from (theoretical reflections about) the theory of sources. This move away from the theory of sources has led international legal scholars to demote the theory of sources to a debate of secondary importance – let alone an unnecessary constraining straightjacket – and, as a result, output, effect, impact of norms or even compliance have been elevated in a central defining characteristic of international law.
The reasons thereof have not always been a dogmatic repulsion towards the theory of sources. The agenda behind such a move (this is what I have called elsewhere the ‘politics of deformalization’) includes the perceived need to expand or reform international law, the urge to buoy its legitimacy or the accountability of its main power-wielding actors, a religious attachment to pluralism, or the necessity to allow greater argumentative creativity – to name only a few. Interestingly, such a growing disinterest for the theory of sources has also been witnessed in international case-law where judges seem to take less and less pains to explain how (and according to which indicators) they identify and ascertain the rules they apply.
The agenda behind the theory of sources
In contrast to such a postontological conceptual nonchalance, this book makes a plea for preserving the central cognitive role of the theory of sources – albeit in a reformed configuration. The reasons for advocating the preservation of a theory of sources are multifold.
First, the book, in a functionally agnostic fashion, submits that, whatever function is assigned to it – whether freedom-restricting, behavior-conducting, progress-enhancing, society-structuring, hope-conveying or simply intellect-stimulating – international law needs to be formally ascertained and cognized to a reasonable extent. The book also takes the centrality of the theory of sources as a precondition for the critique of international law. Indeed, it argues that a (reformed) theory of sources also makes possible the critique of law – and thus its reform.
Eventually, the books argues that a theory of sources is an indispensible condition for the existence of a common vocabulary without which there cannot be any interpretative community of international law. All in all, the book takes the view that, short of a theory of sources able to provide sufficient ascertaining indicators, international law is at best a platform for discursive practices and the profession organized around it a cacophonic debating henhouse.
This week we will be hosting a discussion of Jean d’Aspremont’s recent book Formalism and the Sources of International Law: A Theory of the Ascertainment of Legal Rules, published by OUP in 2011. Jean is a prolific scholar and currently Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Amsterdam. He will be taking up a chair of public international law at the University of Manchester in January 2013, and has also blogged with us in the past. We will start off by an introductory post by Jean himself, and then proceed with comments by Philip Allott (Cambridge) and Carlos Esposito (UA de Madrid), concluding with the author’s response. The book being discussed was previously briefly noted in the EJIL by Monica Garcia-Salmones.
My thanks go out to Yuval Shany, Vaughan Lowe and Irini Papanicolopulu for their comments on my book. It is truly a pleasure and a privilege to engage them in this discussion. Let me begin by responding to some of the points made by Vaughan. I fully agree that the rights set out in human rights treaties could perhaps be reconceptualised as pledges within the framework given by Lea Brilmayer in her BYBIL article; they are not simply reciprocal bargains between states. And I certainly agree that the treaties could – like domestic constitutions – be seen as limiting the powers of governments on the basis of fundamental principles. But that reconceptualization does not necessarily entail that these principles are territorially unbound. After all, issues that mirror the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties have also arisen with respect to the extraterritorial application of domestic bills of rights. In the final analysis, the scope of all these instruments depends on underlying ideological or value judgments – e.g. should citizenship matter in determining whether a state could take an individual’s life or deprive him of liberty on a preventive basis, a debate of great relevance in the United States today.
Turning now to Yuval’s comments, he and I are in basic agreement as to the causes of the confusion and conflicts in the case law, founded as they are in the underlying tension between universality and effectiveness. But even if he agrees with the diagnosis, Yuval takes issue with my prescription – the model with distinguishes between positive and negative obligations, and applies a territorial control requirement to the former but not to the latter, which it treats as territorially unlimited. Yuval argues – quite persuasively – that my model would also lead to some arbitrary results, as in the Ecuador v. Colombia example, where Colombia would under my model not have the duty to ensure the human rights of the people of Ecuador endangered by transboundary harm emanating from the activities of private persons operating from Colombian territory. He opts instead for a ‘a single concept of jurisdiction, applicable both to negative and positive obligations, which centers on the strength of the governmental power that is being applied or can be applied vis-à-vis the individuals in question’, a flexible, functional criterion which would in essence mean that the state would have a particular obligation as soon as it gained the ability to comply with it or violate it. (Note, of course, how in the Colombia example Colombia may have some power over the private perpetrators of human rights violations, but has not exerted any power over their victims – and it’s the victims who have to be subject to its jurisdiction).
A Response to Milanovic on Extraterritorial Application of Human Treaties: The Significance of International Law Concepts of Jurisdiction
Irini Papanicolopulu is Marie Curie Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and a Senior Researcher in international law at the University of Milano-Bicocca (on leave).
In his book, Marko Milanovic addresses the fascinating topic of the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties. The strengths of this book are numerous. In a style that is clear, well-structured and captivating, the author engages in an in-depth analysis of the relevant provisions of the main human rights treaties as well as an analysis of the case-law produced by international courts and quasi-judiciary bodies in applying these provisions. The examination does not shy away from sensitive, complex, or dangerous topics, such as the policy considerations which often underlie treaty making and treaty interpretation or the unwelcome consequences of excessively broadening the scope of application of human rights treaties. Marko Milanovic is not only aware of these and other problematic aspects, but honestly acknowledges them and bravely engages in their discussion. He is not afraid of acknowledging the inconsistencies, drawbacks or limitations of the different approaches – even his own! But this is not all; he also goes further and proposes an alternative model for the determination of the scope of human rights treaties, intended to ensure that considerations of effectiveness do not curtail excessively the aspiration to universality.
One of the greatest merits of this book is that it finally provides order where there was confusion, especially at the time when it was written but also, to some extent, after the European Court of Human Rights decisions in the Al-Skeini and Al-Jedda cases. The extensive and attentive discussion and evaluation of the territorial and personal concepts and their constituent elements is one such example. The taxonomy of the different meanings that the word ‘jurisdiction’ may assume in the human rights context is another. With respect to the latter point, the author rightly distinguishes between the meanings of jurisdiction under general international law and the notion of the same term in the context of determining the applicability of human rights treaties. Attribution of the power to legislate, enforce, or judge, indeed, is different from the actual exercise of the legislative, enforcement or judicial function by a state. Similarly relevant is the distinction between positive and negative obligations pending on States. The consequence is that negative obligations bind states whenever their agents act, irrespectively of the place and person addressed, while positive obligations require that there should be jurisdiction by the state. While the means used for reaching this result may benefit from further elaboration, in particular with respect to the textual analysis, the conclusion itself appears unassailable.
The one point with which I have some difficulties is however the inference that the author draws from the distinction between different notions of jurisdiction, in combination with his distinction between positive and negative obligations of states. As the author poses it, there is jurisdiction when a state exercises power and:
‘This power is a question of fact, of actual authority and control. Despite its name, it is not a legal competence, and it has absolutely nothing to do with that other notion of jurisdiction in international law which delimits the municipal legal systems of states’. (p. 53).
The conclusion is that one should completely disregard the ‘legal’ notion of jurisdiction, in favour of a purely factual one and that the application of human rights treaties ‘should never depend on naked title over a territory, but on actual power exercised over it’ (p. 61).
This thesis however brings with it some problems that do not seem to be sufficiently addressed. Read the rest of this entry…
Vaughan Lowe is Chichele Professor of International Law at the University of Oxford and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford
In his perceptive and incisive analysis, Dr Milanovic argues that the concept of jurisdiction in the European Convention on Human Rights is not the same as the concept of jurisdiction in general international law. Specifically, he argues that the State obligation to respect human rights is not limited territorially but that the obligation to secure or ensure human rights is limited to those areas that are under a State’s effective overall control. The analysis is convincing, and the approach gives a robust and powerful tool for determining the scope of human rights obligations. Applauding that achievement, I wonder if there is not also room for an equally fundamental challenge, arguing that the concept of ‘rights’ in human rights conventions is not the same as the concept of ‘rights’ in general international law.
In an article in the 2006 British Yearbook of International Law, Lea Brilmayer argued that human rights treaties should be seen as pledges rather than contracts, so that analyses based upon reciprocal rights and obligations, of the kind that characterise the traditional discussions of treaties, should not be thought to be necessarily appropriate to discussions of human rights treaties. A comparable shift in perspective would see the commitments in human rights treaties not as reciprocal agreements between States Parties or even as agreements to confer rights upon individuals, but rather as limitations upon the legal power (or at least upon the authority) of governments. There would, in short, be some things that States bind themselves not to do, anywhere.
Those limitations would limit the power of governments and constrain its exercise, no matter what the particular geographical destination of the government action might be. States Parties to human rights treaties would not be seen as agreeing between themselves that they will not arbitrarily deprive human beings of liberty; rather, governments would commit themselves to the principle that no State has the legal power or authority arbitrarily to deprive a human being of liberty, and would agree that in all circumstances in which a determination of the legality of their action is in question their conduct should be appraised by reference to that and other principles set out in human rights treaties.
On this basis, it would not matter where the act had occurred: the question would be simply whether conduct attributable to the State was or was not consistent with the principles which the State had committed itself to observe. That, surely, is more in harmony with the notion of human rights as intransgressible norms than is the view that one has to be standing in a particular place in order to benefit from human rights.
This is the result that Dr Milanovic achieves by his distinction between the obligation to respect human rights and the obligation to secure or ensure them. But the route to that result is slightly different. Concentration on ‘human rights as pledges’ would enable arguments to be built upon a wider range of materials than treaties that have entered into force with the State concerned; and on some accounts of the principle of good faith (such as that in Bin Cheng’s enduring classic, General Principles of International Law) would also entail legal constraints upon the abandonment of the pledge. It would also attach the obligation firmly to the substantive rule governing State behaviour, and avoid any temptation to confine the obligation to a particular system for the handling of complaints that the State has violated its duties.
The questions would not, of course, end there. It would be necessary to go on to ask what consequences flow from conduct that is not consistent with the applicable principles of human rights law. But that approach may itself carry benefits. Action by a victim of a human rights violation would follow the forms of action in national law – actions for assault or trespass to the person or whatever. The point would be that the State lacks the legal power to authorize the injurious conduct.
Marko Milanovic has described a powerful and innovative approach to the conceptualisation of human rights norms, and it is a project which deserves not only the closest attention but also the most vigorous pursuit.
Dr. Marko Milanovic’s book on the Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Treaties (OUP, 2011), which grew out of his doctoral studies in Cambridge, offers an excellent analysis of the jurisprudence of international and national courts and committees on the extraterritoriality of state obligations in the field of human rights. It is by far the most comprehensive book that has been written on the subject, and I have no doubt that it will quickly become the standard reference text on human rights and extraterritoriality, if it has not already become so. As can be expected, especially by those who have followed Milanovic’s earlier works in the field, he reaches the compelling conclusion that the case law on the extraterritoriality of human rights obligations is hopelessly casuistic and unprincipled, and as a result inconsistent and confusing. Furthermore, he argues that the main ECtHR decision on extraterritoriality – Bankovic v Belgium (2001)– is built on erroneous legal foundations, and runs contrary to previous cases, as well to core human rights values.
Milanovic is correct in diagnosing most of the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs: The debate over the extraterritorial application of human rights is mired up in a Koskenniemic tension between an ideal (the universality of human rights) and political reality (the principle of effectiveness, which militates against normative overreach). In fact, one can identify a parallel tension at play between the need to ensure effective protection of human rights (e.g., through eliminating legal ‘black holes’) and the continued commitment to territoriality as an organizing principle of the international legal order, notwithstanding the tenuous connections between borders and human welfare. A third tension, further complicating the debate on the extraterritoriality of human rights obligations, which Milanovic addresses on a number of occasions, involves the institutional relationship of courts to governments, or law to politics. While the extraterritorial projection of state power is not a new phenomenon in itself, regulating it through legal norms and, even more so, by courts applying international legal norms is a relatively novel development. It is therefore not surprising that courts often treat extraterritoriality as a preliminary jurisdictional question (which Milanovic rightly criticizes as a category error) – jurisdiction to adjudicate being a principal tool that courts employ in order to avoid politically undesirable decisions. Read the rest of this entry…
I am very grateful for the opportunity to discuss my book on EJIL: Talk! and Opinio Juris, as am I grateful to the commentators on both blogs for taking the time to read and discuss it. In this introductory post I’ll try to outline the book’s main arguments and themes and my approach generally in analysing a very complex topic.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first, introductory chapter sets out the scope and purpose of the whole study. It defines the notion of the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties, explains that the law of treaties sets no general rules on extraterritorial application, and outlines the basic normative framework of the human rights treaties which are the object of the study, looking in particular at the various types of state jurisdiction clauses that one finds in these treaties, and their relationship with other relevant provisions, such as the colonial clauses. Whether a human rights treaty protects a particular individual in an extraterritorial context is legally a matter of treaty interpretation, and this chapter sets the stage for this interpretative exercise. My main focus is on treaties protecting civil and political rights, for the sole reason that there is much more case law and other material to work with in respect of these treaties than with those protecting socio-economic rights. That said, the book proceeds from the assumption that there is something to be gained from focusing on problems common to all or most human rights treaties, and views these treaties as a whole. Hence, it is generally structured thematically, issue by issue, not chronologically or treaty by treaty.
Of all the treaties, I give most attention to the European Convention on Human Rights, for two reasons. First, the ECHR system is by far the strongest of all human rights regimes (if far from perfect) in its ability to effectively secure compliance and have a direct impact on state policy. The stakes are highest in Strasbourg, because it will be listened to. Second, it is precisely because the stakes are highest in Strasbourg that the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on extraterritorial application is the richest and the most developed. At the same time, it is the most problematic, suffering from rampant casuistry and conceptual chaos. It is a jurisprudence of (at times quite unprincipled) compromise, caused mostly be the Court’s understandable desire to avoid the merits of legally and politically extremely difficult cases by relying on the preliminary issue of extraterritorial application. At the same time, the jurisprudence of the European Court has the most to teach us on questions of both law and policy that are relevant for all human rights treaties.