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Goal-setting in an era of mass extinction: a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity in international biodiversity law? (Part II)

Published on December 29, 2018        Author: 
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The potential role of the planetary boundary for biosphere integrity

The planetary boundary framework was originally developed to identify the key global processes that are essential for regulating the functioning of the Earth System and create what are effectively safe ‘buffer zones’ that might prevent humanity from crossing dangerous biophysical thresholds or tipping points. In its current version, the framework describes nine such boundaries, ranging from climate change to atmospheric aerosol loading and including freshwater use, land-use change, stratospheric ozone depletion, introduction of novel entities to the environment, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows and, crucially, biosphere integrity. The fact that the boundaries represent the limits of what the authors call the ‘safe operating space’ for human development on a changing planet has attracted immediate interest from political scientists working on Earth System governance, and some legal scholars have progressively started to consider the concept as potentially useful for international environmental law as well.

Ever since the first elaboration of the nine planetary boundaries, the very possibility of identifying a global boundary for biosphere integrity resulting from changes in regional and local biodiversity has appeared as one of the most contentious aspects of the framework. As a result of intensive discussions to which various research communities contributed, the description contained in the original planetary boundaries paper was in fact updated in 2015,in order to capture the two key roles of the biosphere in the Earth System, and namely: (a) the importance of genetic diversity in maintaining and building its resilience (i.e. through the use of global extinction rates); and (b) the contribution of organisms’ functional traits to Earth System functioning (i.e. through the so-called Biodiversity Intactness Index). In doing so, the planetary boundary framework was also expanded to recognize the importance of sub-global boundaries that must align with the global boundary definition for biosphere integrity, owing to the fact that the ideal unit of analysis for changes in elements of biodiversity is usually situated at the level of biomes and ecosystems.

From this perspective, and subject to further scientific advancements and new data becoming available, a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity could potentially represent a very useful tool for international biodiversity law. On the one hand, because the national allocation of the planetary ‘safe operating space’ would recognize and make explicit the above-mentioned link between a global boundary and the regional, national and sub-national operating scales at which biodiversity loss occurs. On the other, and as a consequence, because the incorporation in international biodiversity law of a global boundary that might be quantifiable through critical values for one or more control variables could in theory enable changes to biosphere integrity to be used as an indicator of State responsibility, providing a powerful empirical benchmark against which to assess the respect of legal obligations relating to biodiversity (or, at the very least, a set of more precise, science-based objectives and targets that it would be more difficult for States to ignore).

The nine planetary boundaries and the status of their control variables. Source: Steffen et al. (2015)

For the purpose of the present analysis, it is less important what the control variables should be, and it should indeed be noted that identifying suitable ones for biosphere integrity remains a daunting and still hotly debated task. What is crucial is that the concept of a measurable planetary boundary for biosphere integrity clearly suggests that the related biophysical limits, once incorporated in international law, could play an important role in mitigating the procedural and/or non-enforceable nature of most international obligations relating to biodiversity within national jurisdiction (for example, the requirement to develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity set in Article 6(a) of the CBD, or the obligations for in-situ conservation listed in Article 8).

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Goal-setting in an era of mass extinction: a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity in international biodiversity law? (Part I)

Published on December 29, 2018        Author: 
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Introduction

The recent publication of the UN Secretary-General’s Report on ‘Gaps in International Environmental Law’ comes at a particularly critical juncture for the protection of the world’s biodiversity. The Report was released just days after the conclusion of the 14thConference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has expressed deep concern about countries’ lack of progress in the achievement of the Convention’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets by 2020. Furthermore, it closely follows a number of other urgent calls for action, including those contained in WWF’s Living Planet Report and in the four bleak regional assessments conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The widely anticipated failure of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 has been used as a starting point by some to advocate for a renewed ‘global deal for nature’. The Gaps Report itself, beyond its endorsement of a future Global Pact for the Environment, is especially scathing in its ‘indictment’ of biodiversity-related instruments in international law. The Report builds on years of scholarly debates in this field and focuses on, inter alia, the absence of a coherent structure of international biodiversity law, the lack of binding commitments and poor national implementation of voluntary ones, inadequate integration of biodiversity into other law- and policy-making arenas, insufficient use of ecosystem-based approaches to conservation, and lack of attention paid to interconnectedness of ecosystems within and outside protected areas.

Recognizing the need for innovative legal instruments that can capture the complexity of ecological relationships and mitigate the pervasiveness of anthropogenic interference on the Earth’s biodiversity, the international community has indeed embarked on the preparation of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as well as on the negotiation of a new treaty applying to biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. What is arguably missing in both the Gaps Report and these wider intergovernmental efforts, however, is a thorough analysis of the underlying reasons that have prevented existing international biodiversity law from being effective in curbing global extinction rates and unsustainable patterns of ecosystem destruction and degradation, despite decades of legal developments and a robust apparatus of subsidiary bodies tasked with providing scientific and technical advice. Without a similar analysis, the risk of future biodiversity regimes falling back on business-as-usual approaches will probably remain very high.

In this post, I first describe one particularly problematic aspect of international biodiversity law, namely the difficulty of identifying substantive obligations (i.e. obligations of result) applying to biodiversity located within national jurisdiction despite increasing awareness about the interconnectedness of ecological processes occurring at different spatial scales. Secondly, I suggest the potential of the planetary boundaries framework first developed in 2009 by Rockström and others to provide quantifiable measures of ‘biosphere integrity’ that can help define these international obligations. Finally, I propose four ways in which international biodiversity law (including its institutional arrangements) could be used to incorporate a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity.

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UNCLOS, CITES and the IWC – A Tailored International Duty to Cooperate?

Published on November 26, 2018        Author: 
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In October 2018, the Standing Committee (SC) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITESconcluded that Japan had failed to comply with certain CITES provisions regarding the trade in Appendix I species (namely, sei whales). This blog post seeks to evaluate the relationship that such a conclusion could have on Japan’s duty to cooperate regarding the conservation of marine mammals (as required under Article 65 of the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS)), and the duty to cooperate with non-binding resolutions made by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) – especially in light of the findings in the Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan: New Zealand intervening) Case.

The Whaling Case

In 2014, Australia took Japan to the ICJ, alleging that Japan’s Southern Ocean scientific whaling programme (JARPAII) was inconsistent with Article VIII of the ICRW. The Court concluded that JARPAII involved activities that, broadly speaking, could be scientific research but that JARPAII’s design and implementation was not ‘for purposes of scientific research’ as required by Article VIII (para. 227). In arriving at this conclusion, the Court held that Japan has a ‘duty to cooperate’ with the IWC and the Scientific Committee (para. 83). As stated by Meguro, the ICJ effectively shaped the duty to cooperate as a mechanism to bind Member States – who do not support a particular resolution – to the standards/recommendations under IWC resolutions (which, by nature, are non-binding).

Japan’s Recent Relationship with the IWC

In September 2014, the IWC (having regard to the findings in the Whaling Case) adopted a resolution indicating that no further special whaling permits be issued until they had been reviewed by the Scientific Committee and had received recommendations by the IWC. In November 2014, Japan submitted a proposal for NEWREP-A (a new research whaling programme in the Southern Ocean) in which Japan acknowledged that it had ‘taken seriously the Court’s finding that the decision to grant special permits under Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the ICRW, “cannot depend simply on that State’s perception”’. Read the rest of this entry…

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From the Indigenous Peoples’ Environmental Catastrophe in the Amazon to the Investors’ Dispute on Denial of Justice: The Chevron v. Ecuador August 2018 PCA Arbitral Award and the Dearth of International Environmental Remedies for Private Victims

Published on September 13, 2018        Author: 
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The recent 30 August 2018 Chevron v. Ecuador arbitral award is yet another example of the ongoing asymmetries of protection in the much-beleaguered investor-State dispute settlement system, in which States have generously afforded protections to foreign investors to bring suits directly against States, without creating parallel avenues for affected local communities and/or indigenous peoples to initiate arbitration proceedings directly against either foreign investors or irresponsible States. Despite all our collective best efforts at ongoing reform in UNCITRAL (see updates on Working Group III’s mission on ISDS Reform here), ICSID (see their latest rules amendment project here) and elsewhere, I retain serious doubts as to whether investor-State dispute settlement could ever symmetrically represent the environmental and cultural interests of indigenous peoples and local communities, as effectively as it does investors’ claims to treaty protection and (significantly substantial) compensatory relief.  Today, environmental plaintiffs have to navigate between an unwieldy, unpredictable, and quite disparate mix of remedies before domestic (administrative or judicial) courts or tribunals of their home States, potentially some regional courts (such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) or treaty monitoring bodies (whether those specifically created in environmental treaties or human rights treaties), other foreign courts in other countries that permit some environmental tort claims, and possibly, any cases that their home State can bring under diplomatic protection to pursue remedies against foreign nationals or the home States of these foreign nationals.  And all these frequently take place in the context of abject differences of power, resources, and capacities between environmental and human rights victims as claimants against either States and/or foreign investors, vis-a-vis foreign investors as claimants or States as respondents.  It’s not at all hyperbolic to observe that, with respect to the international environmental system, the deck already appears heavily stacked against environmental plaintiffs at the outset.  

The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration presents a crystal example of how what was originally an environmental dispute seeking remediation for one of the worst environmental disasters in history involving oil spillage into 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest – ultimately mutated into the investors’ denial of justice claim in investor-State arbitration.  At least, in my view, while  the erudite tribunal in this case thoroughly set out the technical legal reasoning in its award on the precise legal issues of the investment treaty breaches alleged, the award itself more broadly demonstrates that we may well be at the point that a dedicated separate international dispute settlement system might already be necessary to properly adjudicate victims’ claims in human rights and environmental disputes. (Notably, other scholars refer to this dispute to highlight the illegitimacy or alleged exces de poivre of arbitral tribunals making assessments and evaluations of the acts or decisions of domestic courts and judicial systems ipso facto – a significant  heavily disputed structural matter about the current investor-State dispute settlement system, which is, however, not the law and policy observation I make here.) Some efforts looking beyond the narrow ISDS framework, among others, include projects such as the drafting of the new Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration; the tentative and non-binding 15 September 2016 policy paper of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court exploring the possibility of prosecuting environmental crimes; as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s suite of environmental dispute resolution procedures (interstate arbitration under environmental treaties, mixed dispute resolution under environmental instruments and contracts, specialized environmental rules for arbitration and conciliation).  To date, these initiatives have not gone much further beyond their incubation.

The most difficult aspect of the Chevron v. Ecuador case is the fact that the arbitration turned on the issue of Ecuador’s investment treaty breaches over what Chevron alleged were very troubling serious acts of fraud and corruption committed by lawyers and judges to produce a favorable 2011 Ecuador court judgment for the environmental plaintiffs.  The fraud and corruption allegations have long since overshadowed the urgency of decades of environmental damage that have largely gone without significant and continuing remedy, alongside ongoing health problems from toxic contamination that have impacted indigenous peoples and local communities for generations. (Note: this pollution disaster originated long before I or generations of current international lawyers were even born.) The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration succeeded in laying the blame on Ecuador since, for the tribunal, Chevron had already been released from its obligations of remediation under the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements.  Unfortunately, the arbitral award does not lay out any detailed environmental analysis to explain why contracts such as the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements would be sufficient to release private parties from short-term, medium-term, and long-term remediation efforts to restore the ecosystem, and whether such releases were at all consistent with international public policy and Ecuador’s own commitments under international law (especially international environmental treaties and customary international environmental law).  Neither did the tribunal explore whether Ecuador alone had the right to conclude the Settlement Agreements on behalf of all the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities, or if Ecuador could indeed effectively and exclusively represent the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities in the investor-State arbitration considering how its government agents exercised oversight (or lack thereof) with respect to the environmental disaster.  Because environmental plaintiffs, indigenous peoples, and affected communities continue to be dependent on the host State of the investment to vindicate their claims against foreign investors, the investor-State dispute settlement system simply cannot lend any of these environmental, indigenous, and local plaintiffs any real, much less effective, voice over their fight to restore the Amazon to health.  While plaintiffs are mired in multiple litigations and arbitrations around the world to seek accountability from either Chevron and its affiliates or their own government in Ecuador, there is virtually no dedicated State, inter-State, regional, or public-private partnership cooperative efforts to try and achieve environmental restoration in the affected 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon, as depicted in the map below (source here):

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Global Marine Plastic Waste and the Newly Recommended Amendment to the Basel Convention: a Bandage or a Bandaid?

Published on September 12, 2018        Author: 
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The management of plastic waste is a global problem, but it lacks a global legal framework. In particular, the ubiquitous transboundary movement of plastic waste is of major concern; gaps in environmentally sound waste management, and often the insufficient capacity of importing States to deal with the plastic they receive, is a significant factor contributing to vast amounts of plastic making its way into oceans across the world. An international legal instrument regulating the movement and management of waste is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel Convention); with 186 State parties it includes all top plastic waste exporters except the United States. However, most plastic waste is not subject to the Convention.

Last week, a meeting of the Convention’s Open-Ended Working Group Meeting decided to recommend an amendment to the Convention for adoption at the next Conference of States Parties in May 2019 that would significantly widen the scope of plastic waste covered. The blog post will outline the legal implications of this important amendment, before addressing the broader question of whether the regime created by the Basel Convention, in conjunction with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (Stockholm Convention), is the appropriate avenue for such an approach seeking to reduce the impact of marine plastic litter.

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Global Pact for the Environment: Defragging international law?

Published on August 29, 2018        Author: 
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A ‘defrag’ computer program that consolidates fragmented files on a hard drive holds metaphorical attraction for international lawyers. Our encounters with international law often seem to be specific to particular legal regimes, which have a functional orientation and professional sensibility that, in the words of the International Law Commission, may be self-contained. International environmental law and human rights, for example, were developed at different times and are supported by different international and domestic institutions. Now, the United Nations is considering a proposal that promises to integrate various parts of international law, thereby improving its performance: the Global Pact for the Environment.

The draft preliminary text for the Global Pact for the Environment entrenches a right to an ecologically sound environment (Article 1), sets out a duty of states and other actors to take care of the environment (Article 2) and requires parties to integrate the requirements of environmental protection into their planning and implementation, especially to fight against climate change, and to help protect the ocean and maintain biodiversity (Article 3). These and other clauses provide a framework that follows the existing international human rights covenants – on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights – to promote a ‘third generation’ of fundamental rights. On 10 May 2018, a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly established an ad hoc open-ended working group to analyse possible gaps in international environmental law and, if deemed necessary, to consider the scope, parameters, and feasibility of an international instrument (which could include, but is not limited to, a legally binding agreement along the lines of the Global Pact). Two co-chairs were appointed the following month. An accompanying White Paper outlines the Pact’s antecedents, which include the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In this short post, I consider three ways in which the Pact impacts upon the interaction between regimes and ‘defragments’ international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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Antarctic Environment Protocol Challenges and Achievements: 20 Years in Force

Published on July 11, 2018        Author: 
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Introduction

On 4 October 1991, almost 27 years ago, negotiation of the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (the “Protocol”) finished in Madrid. On 14 January 1998, two decades ago, the Protocol made its entry into force. Now, the Protocol is compulsory for 40 States.

Considering the seriousness of the threat to the Antarctic environment, it is a good time to reflect on the rules that were created to protect it, and how they are now being applied.  

Preliminary considerations for an assessment of the Protocol

It is not easy to carry out an objective assessment of the Protocol. There are several causes for this, and I would like to highlight three of them.

Firstly, because the Protocol is highly symbolic, and it is never easy to adopt a critical approach when most people think that something is very good or very important. However, such a critical approach is essential to improve the Antarctic environmental protection.

Secondly, because the Protocol’s application is an unfinished and ongoing process. Every day it faces new challenges, some of which were not even considered in 1991.

Thirdly, because it is necessary to draw a distinction between the diplomatic, legal and practical perspectives. From a diplomatic point of view, it is a major achievement. Its negotiation was very successful, even considering the disagreements and geopolitical problems that it has had to face. From a legal perspective, the Protocol has secured important achievements, and it has been the starting point for other areas of international law, such as the regulation of mineral activities in the seabed. But, at the same time, it has some significant weaknesses, such as the lack of effective control mechanisms or those of a liability regime. Finally, in respect of its application, each State has different procedures: there are several aspects not fully developed in national law and practice, and there is not enough information to make a general assessment. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Security Council and Climate Change – Too Hot to Handle?

Published on April 26, 2018        Author: 
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Introduction

The Security Council, the only body of the United Nations that can adopt binding coercive measures, has so far been reluctant to train its sight at climate change. As the consequences of climate change become ever more severe, an important question is therefore whether the Security Council will address the security implications of climate change.

Article 24 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council’s classic domain has been interstate armed conflict. Starting in the early 90s, the Council began to show a greater willingness to prescribe measures also in internal situations of humanitarian emergency, thereby articulating a new approach to what constitutes a threat to international peace and security (clearly described in Presidential Statement S/23500, 31 January 1992).

The purpose of this post is to examine whether we can expect a similar evolution when it comes to climate change. In doing so, we must distinguish between three different ways in which the Council can address climate change.

First, the Council can address climate change as part of its general response to conflict situations. Ongoing hostilities in Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria were all catalyzed by extraordinary droughts, storms and extreme flooding, which caused economic and political turmoil and instability. Yet, all these conflicts are recurring items on the Security Council’s agenda. Seen this way, the Council has already shown its aptitude to deal with the immediate security implications of climate change as part of its conflict management agenda.

Second, the Council can proscribe targeted measures to prevent climate change as an independent driver of conflict. This is arguably very different than merely tackling the violent effects of climate change without addressing climate directly. Third, the Council can address security implications of climate change occurring outside of conflict. This is an especially acute problem for most of the so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS), whose very existence are threatened by sea-level rise, hurricanes and dwindling natural resources. Their remote geographical location and small populations suggest that the situation in those states could gradually deteriorate without causing much conflict or international instability.

The focus of the remainder of the post will be on the Council’s ability to address climate change directly, both as an independent driver of or unrelated to conflict. Read the rest of this entry…

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Environmental Rights and the Legal Personality of the Amazon Region

Published on April 24, 2018        Author: 
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There are two recent, noteworthy developments on environmental rights in Latin America. First, an Advisory Opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), requested by Colombia. Second, a judgment rendered by Colombia’s Supreme Court, interpreting its international obligations.

The IACtHR’s Advisory Opinion

On 15 November 2017, the IACtHR issued Advisory Opinion OC-23/17, responding to Colombia’s request to clarify the meaning of “jurisdiction” in article 1.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). Colombia suggested that a State has “functional jurisdiction” in areas that are environmentally protected by a treaty to which that State is a party (e.g. the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region, the “Cartagena Convention”). Colombia also asked if State actions that seriously damage the marine environment – constituting the livelihood of island and coastal inhabitants of another State – are compatible with rights to life and human integrity.

The IACtHR did not limit its Opinion to the marine environment or the Cartagena Convention. It confirmed the relation between environmental protection and the realisation of “other human rights” (paras. 35, 47). It held that the right to a healthy environment is established in Article 11 of the San Salvador Protocol and, as such, is included in the economic, social and cultural rights protected by Article 26 ACHR (paras. 56- 57; in the recent Case of Lagos del Campo v. Peru, the IACtHR established a violation of article 26 ACHR for the first time in relation to the right to freedom of association). Apart from references to the environment in indigenous cases, throughthe right to life and the concept of “dignified life” (vida digna)(Case Comunidad Indígena Yakye Axa Vs. Paraguay), the IACtHR never before addressed environmental rights directly. Read the rest of this entry…

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A New Extraterritorial Jurisdictional Link Recognised by the IACtHR

Published on March 28, 2018        Author: 
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In its recently published Advisory Opinion on “The Environment and Human Rights of 15 November 2017 (in EJIL: Talk! summarized here; on its potential diagonal effect see here), the Inter-American Court is the first human rights court to recognise a new extraterritorial jurisdictional link based on control over domestic activities with extraterritorial effect. This post explains how the conclusions of the Advisory Opinion specifically on the first question recognise a new extraterritorial jurisdictional nexus (1) and argues that despite certain welcome developments (2), the Inter-American Court failed to give a comprehensive guideline as to the limits of the jurisdictional link (3).

1.    Summary of the new jurisdictional test

In its advisory opinion, the Inter-American Court had to answer the question whether a State Party has jurisdiction under Article 1(1) of the Pact of San José over a person situated outside the territory of that State Party if his or her human rights have been violated as a result of damage to the environment or of the risk of environmental damage that can be attributed to that State party.

This is the first occasion the Inter-American Court faces the question of the extraterritorial applicability of the American Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, the Court examined the case law of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and other treaty regimes and confirmed the Convention’s extraterritorial applicability, recognising two alternative bases of extraterritorial jurisdiction: effective control over territory or persons. However, the Inter-American Court did not stop here and accepted a third jurisdictional link “when the State of origin exercises effective control over the activities carried out that caused the harm and consequent violation of human rights” (para. 104(h)). The Inter-American Court widens extraterritoriality by establishing a new jurisdictional link that departs from the criteria for extraterritorial jurisdiction of effective control over territory/persons: it is based on the factual – or, as the Court formulates, “causal” – nexus between conducts performed in the territory of the State and a human rights violation occurring abroad (paras. 95, 101-102). While the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) vaguely recognised that “acts of the Contracting States […] producing effects […] outside their territories can constitute an exercise of jurisdiction within the meaning of Article 1” (e.g. Al-Skeini), it has never applied it as a standalone basis to establish the State’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Read the rest of this entry…

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