Latest Scholarship

January 20, 2017

The UK Supreme Court’s Landmark Judgment Belhaj v. Straw: A View From the United States

Cross-posted from Just Security.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom gave its judgment in Belhaj v. Straw and Rahmatullah v. Ministry of Defence, two human rights cases brought against UK officials in UK courts. Plaintiffs did not claim that UK officials were the main actors in the alleged human rights violations, which included unlawful detention, rendition, and torture. Rather, plaintiffs claimed that UK officials had assisted other countries-principally, the United States and Libya-in committing such violations. The UK officials argued that a court could not decide the assistance claims without ruling on the legality of other countries' actions and that the cases should therefore be dismissed on grounds of state immunity or under the foreign act of state doctrine. But the UK Supreme Court unanimously rejected these arguments. This means that the claims may proceed to trial where the actions of the United States, Libya, and other countries may be reviewed.

Lord Mance gave the leading judgment, with concurring judgments by Lord Neuberger and Lord Sumption. The state immunity question was whether the suits against UK officials indirectly impleaded foreign states because, in order to maintain their claims against the former, the plaintiffs would have to show that the latter acted unlawfully. The act of state question was whether an English court should abstain from adjudicating upon sovereign acts committed by a foreign state, even outside its own territory.

How does the reasoning in Belhaj compare to the approach taken in the United States? What insights might we derive from the UK Supreme Court's treatment of these areas of law and the role of the judiciary in adjudicating questions that implicate international relations? 

State Immunity

The UK Supreme Court found the state immunity question to be quite straightforward. No foreign states had been directly impleaded because no claims had actually been brought against them. No foreign states had been indirectly impleaded "because the legal position of the foreign states" would not be affected by the suits. Para. 31 (emphasis added). The Court distinguished past cases in which foreign states were indirectly impleaded because the claims involved property in which the states had an interest. "The present appeals involve no issues of proprietary or possessory title. All that can be said is that establishing the appellants' liability in tort would involve establishing that various foreign states through their officials were the prime actors in respect of the alleged torts." Para. 29. Such "reputational" harm was not sufficient. Para. 29. As Lord Sumption put it in his concurring opinion: "No decision in the present case would affect any rights or liabilities of the four foreign states in whose alleged misdeeds the United Kingdom is said to have been complicit. The foreign states are not parties. Their property is not at risk. The court's decision on the issues raised would not bind them." Para. 197.

Although the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) differs substantially from the UK State Immunity Act, the approach of the UK Supreme Court on this question was similar to what one would expect in the United States. In Republic of Philippines v. Pimentel, 553 U.S. 851 (2008), the US Supreme Court held that a suit to determine the ownership of property allegedly stolen by Philippine President Marcos could not proceed because the Philippines had a legal interest in the property. This is equivalent to the indirect impleading of a foreign state that the UK Supreme recognized is barred under the State Immunity Act. But in Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305 (2010), the US Supreme Court held that a suit against a foreign official is not necessarily a suit against a foreign state to which state immunity attaches. It would follow a fortiori that a suit a against a domestic official is not necessarily a suit against a foreign state to which state immunity attaches, which is essentially what the UK Supreme Court held in Belhaj. (Parenthetically, it is worth remembering that, in contrast to the US Supreme Court's interpretation of the FSIA in Samantar, the House of Lords has interpreted the State Immunity Act as extending state immunity to foreign officials acting in that capacity. See Jones v. Saudi Arabia, paras. 31 & 69.)

Act of State Doctrine

The foreign act of state doctrine in the United Kingdom, on the other hand, has historically been quite different from the act of state doctrine in the United States. To give two obvious examples: (1) one strand of the UK act of state doctrine is not limited to acts performed within the foreign sovereign's own territory, see Buttes Gas and Oil Co. v. Hammer (No. 3) [1982] AC 888, while the US act of state doctrine is so limited; and (2) the UK act of state doctrine contains a public policy exception, see Oppenheimer v. Cattermole [1976] AC 249; Kuwait Airways Corp. v. Iraqi Airways Co. [2002] 2 AC 883, which the US act of state doctrine does not. Each of these differences played a key role in Belhaj.

The three reasoned judgments did not entirely agree about how to organize the past cases-Lord Mance divided the foreign act of state doctrine into three types, Lord Neuberger into four, and Lord Sumption into two-nor did they agree about the proper terminology. But in the end, all members of the Court agreed on the key points and on their application to these cases. Certain strands of the UK act of state doctrine are territorially limited (specifically the first two types identified by Lords Mance and Neuberger, which Lord Sumption called the "municipal law act of state doctrine"). These strands were thus inapplicable to those claims that involved acts-particularly those of the United States-outside the foreign sovereign's own territory. But each of the judgments also identified a strand of the act of state doctrine that is not territorially limited (specifically the third type identified by Lords Mance and Neuberger, which Lord Sumption called the "international law act of state doctrine"). This strand originated in Buttes Gas and applies to cases "where an issue is said to be inherently unsuitable for judicial determination by reason only of its subject matter." Para. 43 (quoting Shergill v. Khaira [2015] AC 359).

Critically, however, Lords Mance, Neuberger, and Sumption agreed that each strand of the foreign act of state doctrine was subject to a public policy exception and that the exception should apply in these cases. (Lord Mance preferred to view the exception as a limitation on the ambit of the doctrine, but did not think the distinction between ambit and exception was critical. Para. 89.) Thus, Lord Mance wrote: "The critical point in my view is the nature and seriousness of the misconduct alleged in both cases before the Supreme Court, at however high a level it may have been authorized. Act of state is and remains essentially a domestic law doctrine, and it is English law which sets its limits. English law recognizes the existence of fundamental rights, some long-standing, others more recently developed." Para. 98. Lord Neuberger similarly reasoned that, "assuming that the claimants were detained, kidnapped and tortured as they allege, the public policy exception would apply." Para. 168. And Lord Sumption said that the foreign act of state doctrine could not be applied to detention and torture because both "exhibit the same combination of violation of peremptory norms of international law and inconsistency with principles of the administration of justice in England which have been regarded as fundamental since the 17th century." Para. 278.

Differences in Approach Among the Judgments

Despite their agreement on the most important aspects of the case, there were some notable differences in approach. Lord Mance thought that "[t]he concept of foreign act of state needs to be disaggregated, or broken down, and approached at a more particular level of enquiry." Para 11(ii). For him, too much generalization "blurs the distinctions between different types of foreign act of state" and "impedes the important task of identifying the scope and characteristics of each type of foreign act of state." Para. 40. Lord Sumption was more inclined to generalize: "It is always possible to break down the cases into different factual categories, and deconstruct the law into a fissiparous bundle of distinct rules. But the process is apt to make it look more arbitrary and incoherent than it really is. I think that it is more productive to distinguish between the decisions according to the underlying principle that the court is applying." Para. 227. Lord Sumption's approach made him somewhat less likely to insist on all of the limitations to the act of state doctrine that might be found in past cases, for example the limitation of the territorial strands of the act of state doctrine to rights in property. See para. 231.

In approaching the question of public policy, the judgments also laid different emphases on domestic and international law. Lord Mance preferred to look "to individual rights recognized as fundamental by English statute and common law, rather than to tie them too closely to the concept of jus cogens." Para. 107. Lord Neuberger agreed that the public policy exception should "depend ultimately on domestic law considerations," but added that "generally accepted norms of international law are plainly capable of playing a decisive role." Para. 154. Lord Sumption, on the other hand, looked primarily to whether international law had been violated in deciding whether to apply the public policy exception, see paras. 249-80, though even he acknowledged that "the influence of international law does not mean that every rule of international law must be adopted as a principle of English public policy." Para. 257.

The three reasoned judgments also took different views on the relevance of foreign act-of-state decisions. Lords Mance and Sumption each discussed the US cases at length, see paras. 47-56, 209-212, as well as cases from Germany, France, and the Netherlands, see paras. 67-72, 201. Lord Mance cautioned that US law was "not necessarily transposable to English law," para. 57, but also said "we should be unwise not to take the benefit of it." Para. 57 (quoting Buttes Gas and Oil Co. v. Hammer (No. 3) [1982] AC 888). Lord Sumption disapproved of the flexible US approach expressed in Sabbatino, see para. 212, without mentioning the US Supreme Court's more recent decision in Kirkpatrick, which is rather less flexible. He seemed to prefer the "instructive" approach of the French and Dutch courts. Para. 201. But Lord Neuberger advised "great caution before relying on, let alone adopting, the reasoning of foreign courts in connection with the Doctrine." Para. 133. He found the US decisions "to be of very limited assistance." Para. 134.

Act of State as International Comity

One thing that all three judgments agreed on, however, was that the act of state doctrine is a doctrine of domestic rather than international law. Drawing a distinction with state immunity, Lord Mance noted early in his judgment that "foreign act of state in most if not all of its strands has been developed doctrinally in domestic law." Para. 7. Lord Neuberger wrote that "the Doctrine is purely one of domestic common law." Para. 118. And Lord Sumption added that "[t]he act of state doctrine . . . does not reflect any obligation of states in international law." Para. 261. As I have noted in other writing, the act of state doctrine is a doctrine of international comity rather than international law. I wrote there (p. 2077) that international comity "describes an internationally oriented body of domestic law that is distinct from international law and yet critical to legal relations with other countries."

The fact that a particular doctrine is based on international comity does not mean that it must give a decisive role-or indeed any role-to the executive branch; many comity doctrines, from the conflict of laws to the enforcement of foreign judgments to the doctrine of forum non conveniens, are administered entirely by courts (pp. 2132-40). With respect to the act of state doctrine, one US Court of Appeals has recognized an exception allowing the executive to waive the doctrine, see Bernstein v. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche, 210 F.2d 375, 376 (2d Cir. 1954), but the US Supreme Court has never approved it and has rejected a broader role for the executive in determining when the doctrine applies. See W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co., Inc. v. Environmental Tectonics, Intern., 493 U.S. 400, 405, 408-09 (1990). Before we leave the three judgments in Belhaj, it is worth noting that each of them rejected the possibility that the act of state doctrine should apply whenever the Foreign Office indicated that the case would embarrass the United Kingdom in the conduct of its foreign relations. Lord Neuberger was willing to list this as his "possible fourth rule," para. 124, but found "little authority to support the notion that the fourth rule is part of the law of this country." Para. 132. Allowing the executive to dictate to the judiciary, he thought, "would be quite unacceptable." Para. 149. Lord Mance similarly saw "little attraction in and no basis for giving the Government so blanket a power over court proceedings." Para. 41. And Lord Sumption felt that allowing the act of state doctrine to turn on the degree of embarrassment to the government "would not be consistent with the accepted principles governing the relations between the courts and the executive in England." Para. 212.

The fact that a particular doctrine is based on international comity does mean that each country is free to shape the doctrine as it thinks best. Whether one feels that it is instructive to look to the experiences of other countries or not, the simple fact is that the act of state doctrine is quite different in different countries. In contrast to the United Kingdom, the United States does not recognize a non-territorial strand of the act of state doctrine and limits the doctrine to "the official act of a foreign sovereign performed within its own territory." W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co., Inc. v. Environmental Tectonics, Intern., 493 U.S. 400, 405 (1990). On the other hand, the US version of the doctrine has no public policy exception; if the act of state doctrine applies, a US court must accept its validity "[h]owever offensive to the public policy of this country" it may be. Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 436 (1964). Still, it seems likely that US courts would not recognize fundamental violations of human rights as acts of state to begin with. See Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.3d 232, 250 (2d Cir. 1995) ("we doubt that the acts of even a state official, taken in violation of a nation's fundamental law and wholly unratified by that nation's government, could properly be characterized as an act of state"). These differences among nations make the act of state doctrine a fascinating topic for comparative study. They also reinforce the point that the act of state doctrine is one of international comity rather than international law.

November 11, 2015

"The Uncondemned" at Napa Valley Film Festival, Nov. 12-15

"The Uncondemned," a feature documentary about the first conviction of rape as a war crime, is showing at the Napa Valley Film Festival, which starts tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 12.  

That first conviction came in 1998 in a decision by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune.  I worked at ICTR as a gender consultant in 1996, analyzing the evidence of sexual assault in the Akayesu matter, and I am therefore one of the "baby lawyers" who worked on the case and who is featured in the film. (Photo below from 1996, as we flew between Kigali where the Office of the Prosecutor was located and Arusha, Tanzania, where the tribunal judges sat.) 

The film already won two awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival, including the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award for the best film about conflict and resolution. The filed this story about the film and that award.

I have seen the film once before, this summer in Rwanda when the Rwandan witnesses (one of whom is pictured in the flyer) saw it for the first time.  Read more in this previous blog entry.  I'm looking forward to seeing it again tomorrow night, this time with two UC Davis colleagues, Keith Watenpaugh (Religious Studies, History, Human Rights) and Michael Lazzara (Spanish, Cinema and Digital Media). Both are involved with UC Davis's Human Rights Initiative, a project of the Davis Humanities Institute.  Hope to see some of you in Napa this weekend, where the film will be shown at a different venue each day.  Here is the schedule.

June 18, 2015

Premiere of Film on the Historic Trial that Made Rape a War Crime

This week, I am in Rwanda for the premiere of the documentary film The Uncondemned.

The Uncondemned documents the legal and political path to the 1998 conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune, Rwanda, in the first-ever conviction of rape as an act of genocide and as a crime against humanity.  The prosecution and conviction were at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). a forerunner to the International Criminal Court.  The Rwandan Genocide occurred over about 3 months, beginning in April 1994, after the plane carrying the president of Rwanda, a moderate Hutu, was shot down. 

I was a gender consultant to ICTR in 1996 where I did the initial legal analysis of the sexual assault case against Akayesu, arguing that the indictment (for killings as acts of genocide and as crimes against humanity) against him should be amended to include charges of rape and other sexual assaults that occurred at the Taba Bureau Communale, which was under his control.  I appear in the film, along with the two American lawyers who tried the case, Pierre-Richard Prosper and Sara Darehshori. Also featured are other officials of ICTR, journalists who covered the genocide, and human rights advocates. 

Most exciting is that the three women who were the key witnesses against Akayesu are in the film, along with the Taba commune social worker who encouraged them to testify and helped to facilitate their doing so.  Those four women attended the premiere.  Their statements were the ones I was analyzing back in 1996. 

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, hosted the screening of The Uncondemned in the capital city, Kigali. Also among those in attendance were the Minister of Justice, the Foreign Minister and a number of women parliamentarians. Official photos from the event are posted to the President's  Flickr album.  I am in a couple of the photos there, and my son William is one, too, near the bottom of the page.  


Photo: Professor Lisa Pruitt with two of the rape survivors, Serrafina and Victoire, who testified against Akayesu.

The Uncondemned is expected to be in distribution across the U.S. and worldwide in 2016.


March 31, 2010

Justice Stevens on Targeted Killing

As detailed via quotes in the post below, the Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State, Harold Hongju Koh (below left), [last week] outlined a multi-pronged defense of the Obama Administration's use of drones for targeted killings of presumed al Qaeda operatives. (photo credit) Among the statements made during Koh's keynote speech to the American Society of International Law was this:

[S]ome have argued that the use of lethal force against specific individuals fails to provide adequate process and thus constitutes unlawful extrajudicial killing. But a state that is engaged in armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force.
Upon hearing these words, my mind jumped at once to my 2005 interview of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (above right), for whom I had the privilege of clerking and about whom I am writing a jurisprudential biography. (photo credit) Stevens served as a Navy codebreaker at Pearl Harbor from 1942-1945, and earned a Bronze Star for that service. The relevant passage from my 2006 article entitled John Paul Stevens, Human Rights Judge described Stevens' thoughts about perhaps the most famous targeted killing of World War II:

One event days before Stevens’s twenty-third birthday would stay with him for the rest of his life. The architect of the Pearl Harbor attack was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had learned English from a missionary and become a Babe Ruth fan while studying at Harvard in the 1920s. On April 14, 1943, Americans discovered that Yamamoto [right] was about to travel to the front. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, Stevens explained in an interview more than sixty years later, “We had broken the code.” On Roosevelt’s orders, U.S. pilots downed Yamamoto’s plane over a Solomon Islands jungle on April 18, Easter Sunday. “I was on duty on the day they brought the plane down,” Stevens said, “The message was, ‘We bagged one eagle and two sparrows,’ indicating success in the mission.” The kill buoyed the spirits of many, who knew that getting Yamamoto would, as Stevens put it, “have a tremendous strategic advantage.”
Stevens' own thoughts were more complex:
But the incident troubled the young officer. “I remember thinking that the planners must have engaged in a lot of deliberation before deciding to go along with the plan,” Stevens said. “I have read a number of books on it since and discovered that was not the case. They were concerned that targeting him would reveal that they had broken the code.” Accounts of the killing indicate that U.S. Admiral Chester A. Nimitz and others—in communications laced with foxhunting terms—debated only the tactical benefits and costs. “But they had no humanitarian concerns at all of the kind that troubled me,” Stevens said. That fact “kind of surprised me,” he continued, particularly given that Yamamoto “had spent time in the United States and had friendships among high-ranking American officers.”
Stevens reaffirmed this sensibility in a just-published New Yorker interview. There author Jeffrey Toobin tracked the Yamamoto account in my 2006 article (without, alas, citation to same). Implicitly linking the Yamamoto incident to his later discussion of Stevens' post-9/11 jurisprudence, Toobin contributed this insight:
The morality of military action became a lifelong preoccupation.
It's also worth noting that Stevens' concerns respecting that targeted killing had a profound effect on his capital punishment jurisprudence. The passage in my 2006 article thus continued:
Appearing before the Chicago Bar Association decades later, Stevens alluded to the event without naming the target. The Justice told his audience that the experience had sown doubts in his mind about another instance in which the state takes the life of a named individual; that is, capital punishment. Recalling that talk, Stevens affirmed that the Yamamoto incident led him to conclude that “[t]he targeting of a particular individual with the intent to kill him was a lot different than killing a soldier in battle and dealing with a statistic. . . . In my mind, there is a difference between statistics and sitting on a jury and deciding whether to kill a single person.”
As pointed out in note 178 of my article, Stevens revealed in a 1996 speech that, notwithstanding these doubts, at the time of his 1975 confirmation hearings, he did not himself know how he would vote on capital punishment. The Justice since has told me that in 1975 no Senator asked him his views, neither publicly nor privately. In 1976, he voted in Gregg and related cases to reinstate the death penalty. But as posted, in 2008, Stevens made public his conclusion that the death penalty, in all its applications, violates the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Stevens' linkage of targeted killing amid armed conflict with the targeting for execution of a convicted murderer provokes further thoughts:
► As my 2006 article observed,
That superior officers expressed no qualms in 1943 about targeting Yamamoto suggests earlier sources for Stevens’s “humanitarian” unease.
My 2010 article John Paul Stevens and Equally Impartial Government (now available in pdf here, and soon to be in print in the UC Davis Law Review) sets forth a story of Stevens's family that might have encouraged careful thought about the power of the state.
► It bears particular mention that although Stevens harbored what he called “humanitarian concerns” years before he would decide to enter law school, his were, fundamentally, the concerns of a lawyer. They signaled a visceral sense that the process of law, no less than law's substance, places valuable constraints on state power.
The quote at the very top of this post stands in conflict with that sense of justice.

[Cross-posted from IntLawGrrls]