Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918)
This past weekend Irish voters decided, by an overwhelming majority, to amend the Irish Constitution so as to decriminalize blasphemy. Just a few days before this referendum, however, a unanimous Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights gave its blessing to the criminalization of blasphemy, in all but name, in its judgment in E.S. v. Austria, no. 38450/12.
I have now read this judgment several times. Each time I read it I was left more disturbed. It applies the Court’s previous troubling precedents in this context – such as the notorious judgment in Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria – wholly uncritically, while even going beyond them in policing offensive speech. It unpersuasively tries to draw a distinction between blasphemy laws, which categorically impermissibly infringe on the freedom of speech, and the Austrian law at issue, as interpreted and applied by Austrian courts, which according to the Court strikes the right balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. As I will explain, the Court’s distinctions are essentially meaningless and incapable of being applied in any non-arbitrary way, leading us not to a slippery slope of a further erosion of free speech, but to a cliff. Its reasoning lacks rigour and fetishizes the national margin of appreciation. Worst of all, the judgment will likely do nothing to promote religious tolerance in Europe, but will only help to further the narrative of Islamophobic closet neo-Nazis (who are, by the way, already in power in Austria, and not for the first time) that they are free speech martyrs , victimized in their own country by horrible minorities, elites and human rights lawyers.
Kemal, a journalist and a national of the state of Azovia, is living in the state of Tiberia. One day he goes to the Azovian consulate in Kostantiniyye, a major Tiberian city, in order to obtain a divorce certificate, which he needs to marry his current fiancee. Kemal never emerges from the consulate. A few days later, Tiberian authorities publicly claim that Kemal was murdered by Azovian agents while he was in the consulate. The Azovian government denies these allegations. Assuming that the facts asserted by Tiberia are true, answer the following questions (in doing so, bear in mind that Azovia and Tiberia are both parties to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; Tiberia is additionally a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Azovia is not):
(1) Is Azovia responsible for an internationally wrongful act or acts, and if so, which one?
(2) If Tiberia had obtained reliable intelligence that Kemal was about to be murdered in the Azovian consulate in Kostantiniyye, would it have been (i) obliged to or (ii) permitted under international law to forcibly enter the premises of the consulate in order to save Kemal’s life?
(3) Would your answer to question (2) be any different if Kemal was murdered/about to be murdered in the Azovian embassy to Tiberia, rather than in its consulate?
On Friday Palestine instituted proceedings against the United States of America before the International Court of Justice, claiming that the US violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by moving its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The application is here, the ICJ’s press release here; this is how the press release summarizes Palestine’s claim:
It is recalled in the Application that, on 6 December 2017, the President of the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the relocation of the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American Embassy in Jerusalem was then inaugurated on 14 May 2018.
Palestine contends that it flows from the Vienna Convention that the diplomatic mission of a sending State must be established on the territory of the receiving State. According to Palestine, in view of the special status of Jerusalem, “[t]he relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to . . . Jerusalem constitutes a breach of the Vienna Convention”.
As basis for the Court’s jurisdiction, the Applicant invokes Article 1 of the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes. It notes that Palestine acceded to the Vienna Convention on 2 April 2014 and to the Optional Protocol on 22 March 2018, whereas the United States of America is a party to both these instruments since 13 November 1972.
In brief, Palestine argues that various articles of the VCDR, especially Article 3 thereof, require that the functions of the diplomatic mission be performed ‘in the receiving state,’ which means that the mission must be established in the receiving state. Jerusalem is not Israeli territory, and therefore moving the embassy there meant that it was not established in the receiving state. Ergo, there was a violation of the VCDR.
This case raises numerous issues, some obvious, some not. There are many objections that the US could raise, and will inevitably raise.
Last week the European Court of Human Rights issued a highly anticipated blockbuster Chamber judgment in Big Brother Watch v. UK, nos. 58170/13, 62322/14, 24960/15.
This is the first mass electronic surveillance case to be decided against the UK after the Edward Snowden revelations, and it touches upon numerous issues. The judgment is nuanced, complex, and long. It addresses key questions such as the proportionality of bulk interception programmes much more directly and with greater sophistication than the recent judgment in Centrum för Rättvisa v. Sweden no. 35252/08, which was decided by a different Chamber while this case was being deliberated, and which also upheld a bulk surveillance programme (see here for Asaf Lubin’s take on Just Security).
The judgment is too rich to summarize easily, so I will only set out some key takeaways (for an extensive discussion on surveillance and privacy in the digital age, see my 2015 Harvard ILJ piece).
First, and most importantly, the judgment is a mixed bag for privacy activists: while the Court finds that the UK’s surveillance programme under the now-defunct Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was deficient in important respects and in violation of Article 8 and 10 of the Convention, it at the same time normalizes such mass surveillance programmes. In particular, the Court decided that bulk interception programmes are not categorically disproportionate, as privacy activists have argued. Second, in a similar vein, the Court finds that prior judicial authorization is not indispensable for the legality of bulk interception, again contrary to what privacy activists have argued, even if prior judicial authorization could be seen as best practice (note that under the new 2016 Investigatory Powers Act the UK has moved to a double-authorization system which involves both a minister and an independent quasi-judicial commissioner).
Here are the key paragraphs (warning – extracts from the judgment make this a lengthy post):
Earlier this week the European Court of Human Rights decided Sandu and Others v. the Republic of Moldova and Russia, nos. 21034/05 etc, the latest in its Ilascu line of cases (see here and here for more background). As in its previous case law, the Court in Sandu found that both Moldova and Russia exercised jurisdiction in the sense of Article 1 ECHR over the contested separatist territory of Transdniestria, the former on the basis of sovereign title, and the latter on the basis of its control over the area. In this case, which concerned property rights, the Court found Moldova to have discharged its positive obligations towards the applicants, and Russia not to have done so, thus incurring responsibility for violating the Convention. Like in its previous case law, it remains unclear whether the Court is attributing to Russia the conduct of Transdniestrian separatist authorities, or whether Russia is responsible for its own conduct of failing to exercise influence over these authorities so as to protect the applicants’ rights.
Coincidentally, Tatjana Papic and I have recently posted on SSRN the draft of an article on the applicability of the ECHR in contested territories, forthcoming in the ICLQ , in which we provide a critique of the Court’s Ilascu jurisprudence. The abstract is below, and any comments are welcome:
This article examines the applicability of the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR) when a State loses control over parts of its territory. Such situations have increasingly arisen in cases before the European Court of Human Rights. For instance, the Court currently has on its docket an interstate case between Georgia and Russia, three interstate cases between Ukraine and Russia, and thousands of individual applications which concern either Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. The article argues that the jurisprudence of the European Court, which insists on residual positive obligations based in sovereign title over territory, is problematic and needs to be rethought. The Court’s current approach is not only likely to provoke backlash, since it requires it to decide politically explosive questions of sovereign title, but does so for very little practical benefit for the protection of human rights. The article therefore explores more preferable alternatives.
Also this week the Court rendered two unrelated but very important judgments against Russia. First, regarding the 2006 killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Court found Russia responsible under Article 2 ECHR for failing to conduct a fully effective investigation into the killing, specifically because Russian authorities did not explore all feasible lines of investigation into the person or persons who contracted Politkovskaya’s assassination (Mazepa and Others v. Russia, no. 15086/07).
Second, the Court found Russia responsible for the violation of several human rights of three members of the Pussy Riot band, who were arrested, convicted and sentenced to two years of imprisonment for (very briefly) performing their song Punk Prayer – Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Away in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow (Mariya Alekhina and Others v. Russia, no. 38004/12). Pussy Riot were of course very much in the news last weekend, after their pitch invasion at the World Cup final in Moscow.
The most interesting part of the Pussy Riot judgment is the Article 10 analysis; the Court is not content with saying simply and easily that the sentence of imprisonment imposed on the applicants was disproportionate, but engages in line-drawing between hate speech and offensive speech, which is particularly relevant because the domestic crime that the applicants were convicted of incorporated a hatred element. The judgment also has a rather glorious appendix with several Pussy Riot songs (oh so very du jour, and reproduced below for entertainment value, together with the song at issue in the case itself).
Yesterday the UN Secretary-General reappointed 23 of the 24 Judges of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. The one judge not reappointed was Judge Aydin Sefa Akay of Turkey, who is one of hundreds of Turkish judges purged by the Erdogan regime, which accused him of being a member of a terrorist organization. This is not only a manifest act of political cowardice on the part of the Sec-Gen, but is a direct assault on the independence and integrity of the international judiciary. Below is a powerful statement in that regard of MICT President Theodor Meron, who deserves much credit for standing up for his colleague and for basic principles.
On 29 June 2018, the UN Secretary-General reappointed for a new, two-year term of office all of the Judges on the roster of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (Mechanism) who were seeking reappointment except Judge Aydin Sefa Akay of Turkey. In response to this development, the President of the Mechanism, Judge Theodor Meron, expressed his “deep regret regarding, and respectful disagreement with, the decision not to reappoint my valued and esteemed colleague, Judge Akay, and my grave concerns about the far-reaching consequences this decision will have for our institution and for international criminal justice more generally”.
Judge Akay was among the Judges originally elected to the Mechanism by the UN General Assembly in December 2011 and previously served as a Judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Like most of the Mechanism’s Judges, and in keeping with the Mechanism’s Statute, Judge Akay has carried out his work for the Mechanism remotely, in his State of nationality, since joining the Mechanism’s judicial roster. While serving in the Mechanism’s Appeals Chamber on the bench of the Augustin Ngirabatware case, Judge Akay was arrested in September 2016 by Turkish authorities and detained thereafter. He was convicted in June 2017 by a Turkish criminal court of first instance in Ankara on a single charge of being a member of a terrorist organization. Judge Akay resumed the conduct of his judicial functions for the Mechanism in June 2017 following his provisional release pending appeal.
The arrest of Judge Akay, his detention and the legal proceedings against him are inconsistent with the assertion of his diplomatic immunity by the United Nations in October 2016, as well as the binding judicial order by the Mechanism to the Government of Turkey issued in January 2017. President Meron formally brought the matter to the attention of the UN Security Council in March 2017 and on other occasions, as well as reporting the matter to the UN General Assembly. At present, the Turkish judgment of first instance against Judge Akay is subject to an on-going appeal as well as potential review proceedings at national and international levels and the verdict has yet to acquire legal finality.
President Meron observed that “the decision not to reappoint Judge Akay is profoundly troubling on multiple levels”. Expressing concern about the impact of this decision on Judge Akay personally, the President also noted that “the situation has raised serious questions as to whether the immunities to which Judges are entitled and the judicial independence that these immunities serve to protect can be effectively guaranteed for institutions such as the Mechanism, where Judges typically work in the countries of their nationality.”
It is understood that the decision not to reappoint Judge Akay was based on information provided by the Government of Turkey to the UN Secretariat that Judge Akay no longer satisfies the qualifications for Judges identified in Article 9 of the Mechanism’s Statute by virtue of his conviction. The President expressed strong disappointment in this regard, stating that “the acquiescence to the position advanced by the Government of Turkey represents a de facto acceptance of a State’s actions undertaken in contravention of the diplomatic immunity asserted by the United Nations, a dangerous precedent to set.”
President Meron further underscored that the potential for political or other inappropriate pressure by a government in these circumstances is unlimited, explaining “there is a great difference between the statutory right of States to nominate their nationals for election and the far more indeterminate and potentially political and arbitrary possibilities of an extra-statutory and still vague procedure that allows States to advocate the removal or non-renewal of their national Judges or even, potentially, Judges of any nationality”. He added: “If States are permitted to take action against a Judge in violation of the applicable international legal framework, judicial independence—a cornerstone principle of the rule of law—and the integrity of our court as such are fundamentally at risk, as is the overall project of international criminal justice.”
Yesterday the international Joint Investigating Team (JIT) published its conclusion that the missile which destroyed the MH17 airliner over eastern Ukraine was fired by a Russian military unit, the 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade. Here’s a summary of the evidence on which the conclusion was based:
Using satellite imagery and a photograph posted on social media, the JIT notes that Buk systems were located in a parking lot on the base of the 53rd brigade in Kursk. Using social-media videos, photographs published online, and geolocation techniques, the investigation concludes that six Buk systems were part of a larger military convoy that left the base on June 23, 2014.
Investigators then reconstructed the route, with the last available images of the convoy coming on June 25, 2014, about 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. The convoy includes a Buk missile launcher beginning with the number 3 — indicating it was from the 3rd battalion of the 53rd brigade. Bellingcat, using the same videos, previously assessed that the missile launcher in question was number 332. This is the system the JIT says was used to shoot down MH17.
The Buk launcher that shot down MH17 appeared in Ukraine in several photographs and videos on July 17 — the day of the tragedy — and the following day, according to investigators. Comparing images of that Buk system from the convoy originating from the Kursk base and those taken in Ukraine reveals seven “fingerprints” demonstrating that they show the same missile launcher, the JIT says. These identical “fingerprints” include a center-of-gravity marking, the same partially obscured number beginning with the numeral 3, and a wheel with no spokes in the same spot.
On the basis of the JIT’s conclusions, the Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the Buk installation that was used to down MH17. The government is now taking the next step by formally holding Russia accountable.’
State responsibility comes into play when states fail to uphold the provisions of international law. A state can then be held responsible for breaching one or more of those provisions. This is the legal avenue that the Netherlands and Australia have now chosen to pursue. Both countries hold Russia responsible for its part in the downing of flight MH17.
Holding a state responsible is a complex legal process, and there are several ways to do this. The Netherlands and Australia today asked Russia to enter into talks aimed at finding a solution that would do justice to the tremendous suffering and damage caused by the downing of MH17. A possible next step is to present the case to an international court or organisation for their judgment.
Obviously, regardless of the formal invocation of state responsibility, the Russian government is not going to suddenly change its story and admit that its armed forces shot down the MH17, whether acting ultra vires or not. When it comes to Russia’s domestic audience, the JIT’s findings will be easily discredited by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine – but we’ll see how they play out in any international litigation.
The strikes conducted this week against Syrian government targets by the US, UK and France are as manifestly illegal as the strikes conducted by the US alone last year. With one exception, the strikes are identical in the arguments made by the intervenors, in the reactions to those arguments by other states, in the deliberate use of silence and ambiguity, and in the consequent inability of this breach of international law to actually cause a shift in international law.
Like last year, the US (and France) failed to put forward any legal argument as to the source of their authority to act under the UN Charter system of the prohibition on the use of force. Their leaders spoke of the imperative need to avoid normalizing the use of chemical weapons; President Trump stated that the purpose of the strikes ‘is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons;’ Prime Minister May said that there was ‘no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime;’ President Macron spoke of the operation being directed solely against the clandestine chemical arsenal of the Syrian regime.
The language of deterrence used has the flavour of armed reprisals. Not only are such reprisals widely regarded as unlawful, but none of these governments actually clearly sets out an argument on the basis of reprisals. As the ICJ has explained in Nicaragua, para. 207, it is for states to articulate their own legal views, and it is on the basis of these views that other states can react, perhaps towards the creation of a novel rule or exception to an existing rule. In the absence of such a position, however, the approval of the strikes or lack of condemnation by third states has no bearing on the formation of customary international law, or on the evolving interpretation of the Charter. This is the barest minimum of formality required in a legal system, even a flexible one. This is not, as Monica argues in her post, a ‘simplistic’ position lacking in nuance – even if it is conceptually simple, and should be conceptually simple. This is the only dividing line we can have between law and politics, between legal and political arguments.
The OPCW Technical Secretariat released yesterday the findings of its investigation into the Salisbury affair. The report confirms the UK account of the nerve agent, without however specifically naming it in the unclassified executive summary; it also states that the agent was of a high purity, implying its manufacture by a state, but without naming Russia as the source (much in the same way as the UK’s own chemical weapons lab). Here are the key bits:
8. The results of analysis of biomedical samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the exposure of the three hospitalised individuals to this toxic chemical.
9. The results of analysis of the environmental samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the presence of this toxic chemical in the samples.
10. The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people.
11. The TAV team notes that the toxic chemical was of high purity. The latter is concluded from the almost complete absence of impurities.
12. The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.
UPDATE: See also this letter from the UK National Security Advisor to the NATO Secretary-General, providing some previously classified intelligence about the Skripal poisoning.