A Critique of a Law and Economics Analysis of the Alien Tort Statute

A few days ago, I was interested to see a new draft paper out that discussed the law and economics perspective of corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute. Corporate Liability for Extraterritorial Torts Under the Alien Tort Statute and Beyond: An Economic Analysis, by Alan O. Sykes, focuses on an important part of ATS litigation, and one which so far has been relatively neglected — the economic impact of ATS suits.

Unfortunately, I came away from the article a bit disappointed; although Sykes accurately summarizes some economic concerns that are theoretically raised by the ATS, there is close to no examination of actual corporate behavior. I was frustrated with its near total disconnect from any specific applications of the ATS, as only a single example from actual ATS litigation is used to illustrate the potential economic downsides of corporate liability: that of Talisman’s withdrawal from Sudan and replacement by Chinese corporations. Actual dollar figures associated with defending ATS suits, or total amounts of judgments or settlements that have been paid under ATS cases, are never brought up.

My major complaint would be that, because the article simply focuses on the theoretical costs caused by corporate liability under the ATS, with little or no evidence as to the actual costs that have been experienced in ATS suits, Sykes’ analysis is almost equally applicable to the question of multinational corporate liability in any situation, not just Alien Tort Statute case. In his article, Sykes identifies five general economic costs:

  1. Litigation is expensive
  2. This is a confusing area of the law, which means judges are likely to end up making decisions that are biased against big, faceless corporations
  3. Allowing multinational corporations to be sued for allegedly bad things they have done can piss off foreign governments, either where the MNC is headquartered or where the bad acts took place
  4. Allowing corporations with connections to the U.S. to be sued is harmful because it gives a competitive benefit to corporations that do not do business in the U.S., and so cannot be sued
  5. Allowing corporations with U.S. connections to be sued will cause them to engage in expensive restructuring to create subsidiaries that have the competitive benefit of not being able to be sued in the U.S.

These costs are not really unique to the ATS context. It is not that any of these costs aren’t real, but Sykes never discusses how each of these general economic concerns is particularly applicable in the context of the Alien Tort Statute. For instance, although the first point is an important consideration for any type of litigation, the article does not provide any evidence that the costs of ATS litigation are more concerning than the costs associated with, say, products liability, or Title VII cases. Plus, as Sykes himself admits, a large proportion of corporate ATS cases feature up to a dozen different claims in addition to any ATS -based claim for relief. If the ATS didn’t exist, it doesn’t mean these all the ATS cases would cease to exist as well — just that they woudn’t have brought ATS claims. And, other than in a handful of high profile exceptions, the ATS portions of those cases don’t cause any significant increase in the overall litigation costs. As Sykes also admits, U.S. Courts are already concerned with the potential costs of baseless litigation, and have implemented doctrines intended to curtail the expenses associated with such cases. I am all in favor of Twombly’s heightened pleading standard applying to ATS suits, but the record of ATS litigation thus far — with an overwhelming majority of ATS cases being dismissed — suggests that this is already occurring, and that litigation costs in ATS suits are no higher than for any other given type of litigation.

As for the second point, regarding the risk of judicial bias against corporations, there is zero evidence that this is a cost particularly likely to occur in the context of ATS litigation. Given the existence of a single plaintiff victory at trial in corporate ATS cases — and perhaps a dozen settlements, many of which heavily favored the corporations — the record would suggest that ATS suits do not feature any problematic bias against corporate defendants.
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Ecopiracy in the Contiguous Zone

It’s been a relatively exciting week for international law of the sea. Not only has Iran been demonstrating the importance of territorial seas, why straight baseline measurements matter and when they are appropriate, and the differences between transit and innocent passage, but now three Australians are helping to illustrate the concept of contiguous zones, thanks to their unauthorized boarding of a Japanese whaling support ship:

The so-called “Sea Shepherd” activists — Geoffrey Tuxworth, Simon Peterffy and Glen Pendlebury — boarded the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru II early Sunday morning off the southwest coast of western Australia.

….

The three men are members of an Australian environmental organization called Forest Rescue Australia and their mission was designed to prevent the Japanese whaler from tailing an anti-whaling flagship belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Because this all took place about 16 miles off of the Australian coast, the men boarded the ship and were apprehended by the Japanese vessel within Australia’s contiguous zone. There now seems to be a dispute between the Sea Shepherd organization and the Australian government over the significance of this fact — with the Sea Shepherds believing, while the Australian government is stuck in the position of awkwardly noting that the three men who boarded the vessel are subject only to Japanese laws.

Although the Australian government did eventually work through diplomatic channels to arrange for the release of the three activists, its position was that Australia had no particular claims to jurisdiction over the incident, beyond the fact it involved Australian citizens:

[Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon] said consular officials were attempting to contact the men, and the Government’s priority was to ensure their safety and well-being, and return to Australia.
“It is a difficult situation. This incident happened outside our territorial waters, in our exclusive economic zone,” she said.
“But that doesn’t give us rights for Australian law to automatically apply.
“In fact, our advice is that Japanese law will apply because a Japanese boat is the one that’s been boarded.”

The Sea Shepherds do not agree with the Gillard Government’s view:

Capt [Paul] Watson said he had not expected the men to be taken to Japan and charged.

“Considering it was within the 24 miles contiguous zone, which is where the Australian immigration and Customs has absolute authority, we didn’t think the Australian government would allow the Japanese to take Australian citizens out of that area.”

He accused Attorney-General Nicola Roxon of “not doing her homework”, adding the vessel was only 16 miles off the beach.

“This is not some ordinary boat that was boarded, this is a criminal boat supporting a criminal operation.”

Unfortunately for the Sea Shepherds, however, their interpretation of international law is a bit misguided. The contiguous zone’s actual significance is pretty negligible in most contexts, and completely negligible here. The contiguous zone is the band of ocean territory just beyond a nation’s territorial waters, and overlapping with its EEZ. States are permitted to extend this zone up to 24 miles from their coast; this means, in the typical circumstance, a nation’s contiguous zone is a 12 mile band that begins 12 miles out at sea, where the state’s territorial sea ends.

Under Article 33 of UNCLOS,

1. In a zone contiguous to its territorial sea, described as the contiguous zone, the coastal State may exercise the control necessary to:

(a) prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea;

(b) punish infringement of the above laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea.

2. The contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

And that is pretty much the extent of the contiguous zone’s importance, when it comes to a coastal state’s jurisdiction over foreign ships. Moreover, as the Shonan Maru II is not itself a whaling ship or a research ship — it’s basically a bodyguard for the whaling ships, engaged in counter-harassment measures against the Sea Shepherds — it was not even taking any actions which could have subjected it to Australian regulations at the time the Forest Rescue men boarded it. As for Australian criminal laws (even presuming that the Japanese could possibly have committed any violations), such laws are only enforceable in the contiguous zone to the extent that the enforcement was related to violations that occurred or were about to occur within Australia’s territorial sea. Here, all of the events concerned took place outside of territorial waters, and so Australia’s extended enforcement jurisdiction is inapplicable.

As such, if any criminal acts occurred with regard to the boarding of the Shonan Maru, the crimes were probably committed by the Forest Rescue activists rather than the Japanese whalers. In fact, an argument can even be made that, by forcibly boarding a Japanese vessel outside of Australian territorial waters with the intent of detaining it, or at least of diverting its course, the activists were engaging in an act of piracy, pursuant to UNCLOS Article 101. Although the Japanese whalers are hardly innocent when it comes to breaches of international law, in this case, it is the Sea Shepherds that are in the wrong.

-Susan

Is the Strait of Hormuz Governed by Treaty or by Customary International Law?

The Strait of Hormuz, as news articles in recent weeks have repeatedly stressed, is kind of a big deal when it comes to the global oil trade. The Strait, which is a mere 20 miles across at its narrowest point, connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman — and also connects the rest of the world with 40% of its daily oil tanker traffic.

Which is why Iran’s recently renewed threats to close down trade through the Strait of Hormuz are risky for all concerned. Risky for the rest of the world, because any disruption would contain a severe economic toll. And risky for Iran, because if it ever actually did attempt to shut down the Strait, it would intensely piss off literally the entire world. So, while Iran periodically makes noises about taking such a move, the odds of it actually carrying out on its threats are minimal. Nevertheless, given the costs involved, the risk, however small, is taken extremely seriously by the rest of the world.

But ignoring the reality of the situation for a moment, and pretending as if international law actually possessed the power to effect state’s actions in the Gulf, would Iran actually have the legal right to carry out any of its threats?

For once, international law has a straightforward answer: no. Any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz would be unambiguously illegal; the shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz, as laid out by the International Maritime Organization, lay within the territorial sea of Oman. Although the 12-mile territorial seas of Iran and Oman overlap at the narrowest points of the Strait, the deepest waters — and thus the shipping channels — lay to the south, within Oman’s territorial waters. As such, any military action by Iran to shut down shipping through Hormuz would inevitably impinge on Oman’s sovereign rights.

But Iran’s legal rights over the Strait of Hormuz vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and ignoring Oman’s sovereignty concerns, are a slightly more complicated question, although even there Iran’s claims are tenuous. The precise extent of Iran’s legal authority, however, differs based upon whether one applies the doctrine of innocent passage or transit passage to the Strait.

Both doctrines concern the passage of ships (as well as planes) through a nation’s territorial sea, which extends up to 12 miles from a state’s coast. The doctrine of innocent passage, which bears a greater claim to customary international law status, applies throughout all the territorial seas of the world. The concept of transit passage, in contrast, applies solely to those sections of territorial seas provide an exclusive link between two larger bodies of waters — i.e., straits.

The right of innocent passage, laid out in Articles 17 – 26 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), protects the right of ships in transit to pass through another nation’s territorial sea, subject to certain regulations that may be imposed by the sovereign. Passage is considered innocent “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” Innocent passage, however, can be subject to certain conditions imposed by the sovereign state, and may in fact be suspended temporarily in times of emergency.

In contrast, transit passage, which is regulated by Articles 37 – 44 of UNCLOS, is nonsuspendable, and not limited to innocent passage. The conditions that may be imposed by sovereign states are limited, and not subject to any real teeth. So long as a ship is not engaged in any nontransit activities and complying with certain traffic and safety measures, coastal States must permit ships to pass through their territorial seas.

So if the Strait of Hormuz is governed by transit passage, Iran’s legal ability to take any action to impede transport through the strait, even against an unfriendly foreign nation’s warships, is more or less nil. If, on the other hand, the regime of innocent passage applies, Iran has a fair bit more wiggle room to work with. Particularly in a situation where hostilities are shading towards war and the use of force, where a coastal state’s territorial waters governed by a regime of innocent passage, that state has a non-negligible claim to a right to enforce extensive regulatory control over the area, up to and including an ongoing suspension of all transit rights.

The question then is whether the Strait of Hormuz is subject to transit passage or not. Textually, it would seem clear that the Strait of Hormuz falls with Article 37′s scope, as it is a “strait[] which [is] used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.” Thus, under UNCLOS’s text, a strait like the Strait of Hormuz — which connects the Persian Gulf’s EEZ to the Strait of Oman’s EEZ, as well as the high seas beyond — is subject to transit passage. So why doesn’t that settle the question for good as to what transit regime applies here?

Well, for one, neither the U.S. nor Iran have ever actually gotten around to ratifying UNCLOS. Since neither state has ever entered the treaty, its terms can only apply if the terms are also obligatory under customary international law. And there, opinions differ, with no few authorities holding that the general right of transit passage has yet to be established outside of treaty-conferred obligations.

On the other side of that argument is the United States, which, despite its somewhat contentious and complicated relationship with UNCLOS, has long held that the bulk of UNCLOS’s provisions are merely a codification of customary international law. This includes UNCLOS’s provisions regarding transit passage, as U.S. authorities have repeatedly asserted these norms to be a component of CIL:

…the United States…particularly rejects the assertions that the…right of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, as articulated in the [LOS] Convention, are contractual rights and not codification of existing customs or established usage. The regimes of…transit passage, as reflected in the Convention, are clearly based on customary practice of long standing and reflects the balance of rights and interests among all States, regardless of whether they have signed or ratified the Convention… (Diplomatic Note of August 17, 1987, to the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria (intermediary for Iran)).

And,

…the regime [of transit passage] applies not only in or over the waters overlapped by territorial seas but also throughout the strait and in its approaches, including areas of the territorial sea that are overlapped. The Strait of Hormuz provides a case in point: although the area of overlap of the territorial seas of Iran and Oman is relatively small, the regime of transit passage applies throughout the strait as well as in its approaches including areas of the Omani and Iranian territorial seas not overlapped by the other. (Navy JAG, telegram 061630Z June 1998).

In contrast, Iran has consistently maintained the opposite view, holding that transit passage only exists among states that have agreed to submit to that regime via ratification of an international agreement. Although Iran has not ratified UNCLOS, it has signed the convention, and with its signature it submitted the following declaration:

Notwithstanding the intended character of the Convention being one of general application and of law making nature, certain of its provisions are merely product of quid pro quo which do not necessarily purport to codify the existing customs or established usage (practice) regarded as having an obligatory character. Therefore, it seems natural and in harmony with article 34 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that only states parties to the Law of the Sea Convention shall be entitled to benefit from the contractual rights created therein.

In other words, Iran viewed Article 38 of UNCLOS, concerning the right of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, to be an exclusively treaty-based obligation, and not one of customary international law. As Iran never got around to ratifying UNCLOS, the implication would be that Iran does not in fact believe itself to have acceded to any such treaty obligation. This position has been confirmed by numerous assertions by Iranian officials in the decades prior to and since UNCLOS’s entry into force.

Iran is not alone in this belief about transit passage’s status under international law, either. Oman, motivated by a similar interest in the Strait of Hormuz, also filed a declaration along with both its signature to and ratification of UNCLOS, which questioned the CIL status of transit passage, and also suggested that Oman did not intend to adopt the obligations of transit passage conferred by treaty, either. Its ratification statement indicated that it only recognized and agreed to compliance with provisions concerning the regime of innocent passage — and not that of transit passage. As such, Oman’s ratification was subject to the condition that “innocent passage is guaranteed to warships through Omani territorial waters, subject to prior permission.”

Although these declarations have never actually been enforced or acted upon by either Oman or Iran, making the bulk of state practice with regards to the Strait of Hormuz to be in conformity with the existence of transit passage through the Strait, it does not appear that either coastal state believes itself to be legally bound by a customary international law of transit passage, either. Moreover, state practice and opinio juris elsewhere in the world likewise fails to unambiguously confirm the existence of a customary international law of transit passage. As such, it cannot be automatically assumed that Iran does not possess a right to limit transit through the Strait of Hormuz, at least to the extent permitted by the regime of innocent passage.

While the practical effect of transit passage’s precise status under international law will likely (definitely) be minimal in shaping events in the Persian Gulf in the days and weeks to come, parties on both sides of the dispute will be likely to invoke the application of international law in their rhetoric, as they seek to imbue their military actions with the color of law. Still, as the Strait of Hormuz does not belong to Iran alone, and Iran’s sovereign claims over the Strait are limited by Oman’s own claims to its territorial seas, any action taken by Iran to close the entirety of the Strait will necessarily be an act of force prohibited by the UN Charter, and unquestionably a violation of international law.

-Susan