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Iran, The Nuclear Issue & Countermeasures

Published on January 10, 2012        Author: 

Sahib Singh is a Visiting Lecturer of International Law at the University of Vienna, a Visiting Fellow at the British Institute of International & Comparative Law and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. The legal principles and arguments put forward are addressed far more extensively, albeit in the context of a different enquiry, in a forthcoming book chapter on Countermeasures and Non-Proliferation Law (draft here).

Since the publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report on Iran of 8 November 2011, the Iranian nuclear issue has continued to slowly escalate.  This escalation has largely been constrained within its own narrative and of economic sanctions but, at other points, has spilled into diplomatic rows and military threats (see here and here).  In the forthcoming weeks, certainly the US, and possibly the EU, shall significantly broaden existing sanctions, introducing a spate of new sanctions as part of a marked shift in sanctions strategy.  However, despite familiar policy issues arising with such a shift, this post shall examine a foundational legal question: do states, beyond the scope of existing Security Council mandated sanctions, have standing to take unilateral countermeasures against Iran, and if so, upon which particular legal grounding?  In particular, I wish to examine the question of standing, under the law of State responsibility (particularly under Article 42(b)(ii) of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility), to respond to alleged breaches of the collective non-proliferation obligations contained in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  The post shall determine that there is a considerable ambiguity in the law, arising from the tension between the law of treaties and the law of state responsibility, and arguably, states undertaking unilateral sanctions as a form of countermeasures against Iran may not have strict legal standing to do so (see here, pp. 10-24 for a more detailed examination).

Background & Delineating the Legal Question

Since 2002, when Iran revealed uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz and Arak that had been previously concealed for nearly 18 years, the IAEA and the international community has viewed Iran’s nuclear program with concern for its possible military dimensions.  Iran has continuously sustained its ‘inalienable right’ to peaceful use of nuclear technology (including acceptable levels of uranium enrichment) under Article IV NPT.  Despite mere suspicions and no conclusive evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, and acting in discordance (although not necessarily in breach) with Article XII(c) of its Statute, the IAEA referred the case of Iran to the UN Security Council (UNSC) in February 2006.  Since the passage of UNSC Resolution 1696 (2006), Iran’s rights and obligations in relation to its nuclear program have been severely transformed, and the first of four rounds of UNSC Chapter VII economic sanctions were put in place.  The latest and most extensive of these was UNSC Resolution 1929 (2010), passed on 9 June 2010 (see pp. 39-44 of my paper for a discussion of parts of it). Read the rest of this entry…


The Enron Annulment Decision’s exposure of Necessity’s Endemic Uncertainty: A Welcome Critique

Published on October 25, 2010        Author: 

Sahib Singh is a  member of the international litigation and arbitration group at Skadden and a visiting lecturer at the University of Vienna.

As promised by my last post on the Sempra Annulment decision, this is a comment on the Enron Annulment decision of 30 July 2010. The decision is fascinating for a number of reasons, but this post shall concentrate on the Committee’s analysis of the “only means” requirement under the customary doctrine of necessity. Whilst highlighting the inherent ambiguity in the application of these words, the Committee’s inquisitorial approach may create more problems than it solves. Accordingly, this post concludes with a rough sketch of logical steps a tribunal may take in applying the “only means” requirements under custom.

I.          Background & Findings of the Committee in the Enron Annulment decision

By way of background on investor-State arbitration claims concerning Argentina, please see my last post. The Enron Annulment Committee concluded that the original award, rendered in favour of the Claimant, was to be annulled due to the Tribunal’s failure to apply the applicable customary law as represented by Article 25 of the ILC Articles on the Responsibility of State for Internationally Wrongful Acts and failure to give reasons (paras. 377-8, Enron Annulment). In particular the Committee concluded that the tribunal’s reasoning of the “only means” requirement under Article 25 was entirely insufficient: (emphasis added)        

369. The first question concerns the legal definition of the expression “only way” in Article 25(1)(a) of the ILC Articles. The Committee notes that the expression is capable of more than one possible interpretation. One potential interpretation is that it has its literal meaning, such that in the present case, the principle of necessity could be relied on by Argentina if there were genuinely no other measures that Argentina could possibly have adopted in order to address the economic crisis. As Argentina points out, there will almost inevitably be more than one way for a Government to respond to any economic crisis, and if this interpretation were correct, the principle of necessity under customary international law could rarely if ever be invoked in relation to measures taken by a Government to deal with an economic crisis. However, that would not mean that it would not be open to a Tribunal to find that this is the correct interpretation, although there are other interpretations that would be equally open to a Tribunal.

 370. For instance, another possible interpretation would be that there must be no alternative measures that the State might have taken for safeguarding the essential interest in question that did not involve a similar or graver breach of international law. Under this interpretation, if there are three possible alternative measures that a State might adopt, all of which would involve violations of the State’s obligations under international law, the State will not be prevented from invoking the principle of necessity if it adopts the measure involving the least grave violation of international law. Under this interpretation, the principle of necessity will only be precluded if there is an alternative that would not involve a breach of international law or which would involve a less grave breach of international law.

 371. A second question not addressed by the Tribunal is whether the relative effectiveness of alternative measures is to be taken into account. In adopting measures to safeguard an essential interest, a State may in practice not be in a position to know with certainty whether a given measure will prove to be effective, and reasonable minds may judge that some measures are likely to be more effective than others. For instance, suppose that there are two possible measures that a State might take in order to seek to safeguard an essential interest. One is 90 per cent probable to be 90 per cent effective to safeguard that essential interest, while the other is 50 per cent probable to be 60 per cent effective. Suppose that the former measure would (subject to the potential application of the principle of necessity) be inconsistent with obligations of the State under international law, while the latter measure would not. Would the State be precluded from invoking the principle of necessity if it adopted the former measure, on the basis that there was an alternative available? Or could the State claim that the measure taken was the “only way” that stood a very high chance of being very effective?

 372. A third question that is not specifically addressed by the Tribunal is who makes the decision whether there is a relevant alternative, and in accordance with what test? Does the Tribunal determine this at the date of its award, when the Tribunal may have the benefit of knowledge and hindsight that was not available to the State at the time that it adopted the measure in question? Or does the Tribunal determine whether, on the basis of information reasonably available at the time that the measure was adopted, a reasonable and appropriately qualified decision maker would have concluded that there was a relevant alternative open to the State? Or does customary international law recognise that reasonable minds might differ in relation to such a question, and give a “margin of appreciation” to the State in question? In that event, the relevant question for the Tribunal might be whether it was reasonably open to the State, in the circumstances as they pertained at the relevant time, to form the opinion that no relevant alternative was open.

  II.        Analysis of the Committee’s Annulment approach to “only means”

 The Committee’s analysis of the “only means” requirement under Article 25 ILC Articles raises three particular points of interest (sections B-D below). However, this post shall quickly examine the background to this requirement. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis, EJIL Reports

Necessity in Investor-State Arbitration: The Sempra Annulment decision

Published on August 16, 2010        Author: 

Sahib Singh is a  member of the international litigation and arbitration group at Skadden and a visiting lecturer at the University of Vienna. This note was prepared before the Enron v. Argentina annulment decision became available at the beginning of August. A note on that case is forthcoming on EJIL: Talk!

On 29 June 2010, the ad hoc ICSID Annulment Committee annulled the initial award in Sempra Energy International v. Argentina, finding that the initial tribunal had exercised a manifest excess of powers. The decision is central to our understanding of necessity in international investment law, and particularly the relationship between necessity under Article XI of the Argentina-US BIT of 1991 and under customary international law. Unfortunately, the committee’s decision leaves much to be desired in terms of its interpretive methodology. The central critique of this post, is the degree of relevance the committee’s decision gives to necessity under customary international law when interpreting Article XI. It also questions the presumptive relevance of necessity under custom as an interpretive tool, when the latter can only apply if the investor does not hold substantive or procedural rights under the BIT.


The investor-state arbitration awards concerning Argentina are, for the most part, centred on the Argentine financial crisis that hit the country in late 2001. As a consequence of the crisis, Argentina undertook specific regulatory measures which liquidated the value of foreign investments (the factual matrix is far more complex, but shall not be entered into here). In the spade of investment arbitrations brought by foreign investors, Argentina has argued that it is not liable under a range of BITs due to the defence of necessity. In regards to US investors, such arguments have fallen under both customary international law and Article XI of the Argentina-US BIT. The latter reads as follows:

‘This Treaty shall not preclude the application by either Party of measures necessary for the maintenance of public order, the fulfilment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security, or the protection of its own essential security interests.’

Thus far six rulings have been made on the operation of necessity under Article XI and custom. Read the rest of this entry…

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