Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Legacy of Justice David H. Souter to the Judges of the World

The picture above you will certainly change when the Supreme Court of the United States reconvenes in October after summer recess. Justice David H. Souter is retiring from regular services as a Justice. Souter’s retirement gives President Barack Obama his first opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court Justice and the whole nomination-confirmation process will surely be interesting. However, now is time to look back at Justice Souter’s legacy as a Justice, a bequest that is not only to other judges and lawyers of the United States, but also to the judges of the world.

Born September 17, 1939, Souter became Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. He attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1966. Also disliked private practice and began his career in public service as Assistant Attorney General of New Hampshire in 1968. Souter also occupied the Attorney General of New Hampshire office and grew to be a Justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Former President George H.W. Bush nominated Souter as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1990, shortly after the United States Senate confirmed him by an astonishing vote of 90-9 after the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out the nomination by a vote of 14-3. However, his story is interesting in the sense that at the time of his appointment, his advisers and the conservatives assured former President George H.W. Bush that Souter would be a home run for conservatism.

Initially, from 1990 to 1993, Souter tended to be a conservative-leaning Justice, but then became one of the most reliable members of the court’s liberal wing, prompting the cry of “no more Souters” by Republican activists, dismayed about how George H.W. Bush’s choice had turned out.

Therefore, and as President Obama said, Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He arrived to the Supreme Court of the United States with no particular ideology and no particular commitment to any political party. That was always clear, since, for example, Souter said during his confirmation hearing that he had no agenda on abortion and that the had not made a decision on how he would vote if the issue of Roe v. Wade was put before him.

Justice Souter is also a gentleman and a scholar who sees no need to show that fact off, and he will go down in history as so. Maybe he can be seen as a misfit or a loner, not quite in touch with modern life. The truth is that Justice Souter is respectful but direct while questioning lawyers who appear before the Court, and such activity displays his scrupulous preparation and his mastery of every case at hand. A Justice has to always make tough decisions and possibly gain some enemies for doing so, but there is nothing more important than a respectful judge, one who complies with the law in order to have the moral authority to instruct others to comply with it.

As any other man in the world, Justice Souter can also be examined by his work. And the main job of a Justice is to write opinions. Nevertheless, there isn’t any landmark case with Justice Souter’s majority opinion signature. What we have from his time in Court are 156 majority opinions and 123 dissenting opinions. Worth mentioning are the following cases:

The most remembered case will surely be Planned Parenthood v. Casey where he developed a joint opinion with Justice Kennedy and former Justice O’Connor that practically upheld Roe v. Wade, a case concerning abortion rights. Souter wrote that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned because it would be “a surrender to political pressure”. Other opinion that will always take us back to Justice Souter is his powerful dissent in Bush v. Gore, the 5-to-4 decision that ended the disputed Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election and effectively declared George W. Bush the winner. Souter demanded that the presidential election recount continued in Florida, a position that was not taken by the majority of the Court.

Legal expert Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently that his favorite Souter opinion came in a largely forgotten case named Bowles v. Russell. In that case, Keith Bowles was sentenced to fifteen years to life for a murder in Ohio. He wanted to file an appeal in federal court. The judge told him he had until February 27, 2004, to submit his papers. Bowles’s lawyer turned them in on February 26th. But the judge had made a mistake. The law said that the deadline should have been February 24th.
Should Bowles be allowed to proceed with his appeal, because he had relied on the judge, or should he be barred under a strict reading of the law?
By a vote of five to four, in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court said: The law’s the law. Bowles missed the deadline, which he might consider as he potentially spends the rest of his life in prison.

Souter wrote the dissent for his three liberal colleagues, and for Toobin, the opinion is a lesson in graceful outrage. “It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch,” Souter wrote, “I respectfully dissent.”

Some might think dissents are not important. However, dissents can be a great opportunity to create philosophical ground upon which citizens can advance alternative interpretations of the constitution of their own. For example, let’s take a look to the dissent of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (actually the only woman in the Court) in the pay equity case of Lilly Ledbetter.

Ginsburg, joined by Souter, in dissenting from the majority opinion, which threw out Ms. Ledbetter’s suit because she did not file it as soon as she received her first short-changed pay check. Yet Ms. Ledbetter, an Alabama grandmother, did not learn of the pay disparity she suffered until someone put an anonymous note in her box. Moreover, as Justice Ginsburg explained, women in all-male work force are often scared to make waves.

Justice Ginsburg forceful and passionate dissent helped frame the issue. Her plain language spurred activists, politicians and even the Obama campaign to push Congress to change the law. As a result of this mobilization, the first major piece of legislation signed by President Obama, the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, overruled the Court majority’s restricted decision.

It really doesn’t matter that Justice Souter didn’t get to write the majority opinion of any landmark case. What really matters is that Souter was always there to write clear and respectful dissents, which might actually change the legal panorama someday. This proves that Souter consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead in one task: reaching a just result in the case that was before him.

President Obama also said that Justice Souter approached judging as he approaches life, with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion, the hallmark of not just being a good judge but of being a good person. His retirement has prompted other Justices to praise his job.

Justice Stevens said that he is confident that Souter professional work will be extremely well judged by future historians, while Justice Kennedy preferred a most personal side, saying that Souter is one of the most adept and amusing storytellers he has ever encountered. The Nation, he said, should be grateful always for his integrity and absolute probity, and for his lasting contributions to our law and to the dignity of the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg stated that among jurist with whom she have served, Souter is the very best. For her, his level of preparation for the cases is astonishing and he works very hard at getting it right.

What will Justice Souter be remembered for? Certainly, it will not be for an opinion. Instead, Justice Souter will be remembered for being the perfect judge. First, he was an independent Justice, giving no promises to any political party and deciding the case in accordance with the law, not with his beliefs. Second, he was a gentleman, a very private man that took no interests in politics and publicity, because he understood brilliantly the art of being a judge. Third, because of his dissents, always leaving important constitutional doctrine to the people, doctrines that will be revisited and probably adopted in the future. Finally, because he was an excellent jurist who always tried to get the cases right, and above all he was a good friend. The United States Supreme Court will surely miss him.

Souter is an example to all the judges in the world. Every judge must be independent and fair-minded. Every judge must go to the bench with no particular ideology or political commitment but with the vow of applying the law. Every judge must show good manners and while trying to reach a just result, he must be a good person. Judges are the keepers of the law, and with law comes peace, so believe it or not, judges are responsible for delivering peace to every nation and to help counterbalance the abuses of this extremely political driven world.

Monday, May 4, 2009

El Derecho Internacional también regula la Gripe Porcina

Hoy en día la influenza (gripe porcina o gripe H1N1 para los que prefieren salvaguardar la reputación de los animales) es igual de famosa que Michael Jackson o YouTube. El brote de este virus ha causado alarma en todo el mundo, sobretodo porque las autoridades ya se han dado cuenta que por las características del virus es muy probable que la Organización Mundial de la Salud (en lo adelante la “OMS”) decrete una pandemia.

Ahora bien, a pesar de que la última pandemia se remonta al siglo pasado, pocos pero algunos esfuerzos se han hecho para afrontar una nueva catástrofe. Sobretodo a partir del año 2004, en donde parecía inminente la pandemia por la gripe aviar. La epidemia pondrá a prueba todas estas previsiones. Dentro de dichas previsiones, nos encontramos con reglas de derecho internacional, específicamente el Reglamento Sanitario Internacional, adoptado por el OMS en el año 2005.

El objetivo de este post no es otro que revisar esa regulación internacional para destacar sus disposiciones más importantes, además de demostrar que al igual que Michael Jackson o YouTube, el derecho internacional está también en todos lados, y que es una herramienta fundamental para coordinar los esfuerzos internacionales para evitar una pandemia, que sumada a la ya existente crisis económica, podría acabar con el mundo más temprano que tarde.

La OMS ha definido a la gripe porcina como una enfermedad respiratoria grave, contagiada de los cerdos, causada por uno de los varios virus “A”. No es la primera vez que los humanos se contagian de los cerdos, pero el tipo de virus de este última epidemia sí es novedoso.

Solamente al 26 de abril, habían casos confirmados en 19 de los 32 Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 20 casos confirmados en Estados Unidos y 6 casos confirmados en Canadá. La enfermedad también ha llegado a Europa, con brotes en España, Francia, Inglaterra. Otros países que se han visto afectados son Australia, Nueva Zelanda e incluso Hong Kong. El Banco Mundial, en vista de la situación, ha acordado extenderle un préstamo a México por la cantidad de 205 millones de dólares para ayudar a controlar la enfermedad. Esos números han ido incrementando a paso galopante y al día de hoy, en 38 de los 50 estados de Estados Unidos, existen casos de la epidemia.

La particularidad del virus hasta ahora ha sido que más que afectar a personas débiles, ha atacado a personas jóvenes y totalmente saludables, que no es la población que normalmente sucumbe a este tipo de virus. Estados Unidos ha declarado emergencia sanitaria, y en prácticamente todos los aeropuertos del mundo el control es férreo.

En respuesta a esta epidemia, la OMS ha aplicado el Reglamento Sanitario Internacional, que apenas entró en vigencia en el año 2007. Este instrumento internacional fue el producto de más de diez años de negociaciones y esfuerzos para revisar las normas internacionales que tratan el tema de las enfermedades infecciosas y representa una transformación fundamental de la normativa anterior para hacer frente a grandes epidemias mundiales. El brote de la gripe porcina, por tanto, constituye una excelente oportunidad para medir el éxito o no de estas normas y si efectivamente son una herramienta útil para salvaguardar vidas humanas.

La primera figura jurídica que fue utilizada fue la declaración de una emergencia de salud pública de importancia internacional. Esta declaración fue realizada por el Director General de la OMS el 26 de abril del presente año. La base legal para realizar esta declaración es el Artículo 12.1 del Reglamento Sanitario Internacional que define a una emergencia de salud pública de importancia internacional de la siguiente manera:
Es un evento extraordinario que (…) se ha determinado que:

i) constituye un riesgo para la salud pública de otros Estados a causa de la propagación internacional de una enfermedad y,

ii) podría exigir una respuesta internacional coordinada.
Esta determinación la realiza el Director General de la OMS con la asistencia del Comité de Emergencias, que tiene esa facultad de conformidad con el artículo 48.1.a del Reglamento Sanitario Internacional. En el curso de esta epidemia de la gripe porcina, cabe destacar que el Comité de Emergencias no le recomendó al Director General de la organización elevar el nivel de alerta de Fase 3 a Fase 4 y que ha surgido un nuevo criterio para elevar el grado de alerta, este es, el peligro inminente de una epidemia de mayor gravedad y ya no hace falta esperar a que la enfermedad llegue a los niveles establecidos para aumentar la fase.

Por otra parte, hay que resaltar la facultad del Director General de la OMS para emitir recomendaciones que no son de obligatorio cumplimiento para los Estados. Esta facultad fue puesta en práctica en el curso de esta epidemia, ya que el 25 de abril del presente año, el Director General recomendó a todos los países la intensificación de la vigilancia sanitaria con respecto a los brotes de gripe y neumonía. Este Reglamento Sanitario Internacional, no prohíbe a los Estados a adoptar medidas incluso más estrictas para hacer frente a la enfermedad, siempre que esas medidas sean consistentes con el Reglamento y no sean restrictivas del comercio y turismo internacional.

Con respecto a las restricciones del comercio, hay que destacar que el Director General tiene la facultad de recomendar restricciones si basado en evidencia científica existe un grave peligro de que la enfermedad siga agravándose. En el caso actual, los científicos no han encontrado evidencia científica que los productos porcinos transmitan la enfermedad y por esa razón, esa rama del comercio internacional no se ha paralizado. Sin embargo, hay que destacar que algunos países han tomado esta medida, como por ejemplo Rusia, y esa prohibición podría violar el Reglamento Sanitario Internacional o inclusive las disposiciones de la Organización Mundial del Comercio, en el caso de que Rusia fuera parte de ella.

Otro tema interesante y de importancia son las restricciones a los viajes. Esa es otra de las facultades el Director de la OMS, que comparte con los Estados Parte de la OMS. Tampoco se ha decidido la OMS a emitir este tipo de restricciones todavía, pero es importante saber que es una posibilidad, siempre y cuando estas medidas no resulten invasivas a la privacidad de las personas y siempre tratando de implementar medidas alternativas que no lleven a medidas tan drásticas, como son los exámenes médicos que ya se están practicando en diversos aeropuertos del mundo.

El derecho internacional de los derechos humanos también juega un papel fundamental en este tipo de epidemias. En vista de que estas enfermedades se transmiten de persona a persona, la epidemia trae como consecuencia medidas como intervenciones, aislamiento obligatorio, cuarentena e inclusive tratamiento compulsivo. Todo este tipo de medidas afectan los derechos civiles y políticos de las personas que se encuentran protegidos en el Pacto Internacional de Derechos Civiles y Políticos que prácticamente es reconocido en todos los países mundo.

El Reglamento Sanitario Internacional permite este tipo de medidas que atentan contra los derechos civiles y políticos de las personas, siempre y cuando cumplan con los siguientes requisitos:
a) estén prescritas en la Ley;

b) sean aplicadas de forma no discriminatoria;

c) estén relacionadas a un interés superior de proteger la salud pública y;

d) que sean necesarias para lograr la protección del público en contra de la enfermedad.
El año 2009 está siendo bastante difícil para nuestro planeta y sus habitantes. No solamente se sufre una crisis económica sin precedentes, sino que también estamos al borde de una pandemia, una enfermedad de gran magnitud y que además de pobreza puede traer muchas muertes. Sin embargo, el mundo está mucho más preparado que a principios del siglo XX y el sistema de Naciones Unidas ha probado ya ser efectivo para resolver ciertas situaciones. El derecho internacional está una vez más presente para proveer una solución común a todos los países miembros de la Organización Mundial de la Salud, que sin duda alguna, está viviendo su mayor prueba y que será sometida a escrutinio luego de esta crisis sanitaria. El éxito está garantizado siempre y cuando los países cumplan con estos reglamentos y venzan la burocracia con el objetivo de lograr acuerdos más efectivos para hacer frente a catástrofes de carácter mundial.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Gulf of Venezuela & International Law

On a world thirsty for energy, oil is the cause of numerous international conflicts. For example, take Venezuela and Colombia, states that assert sovereign rights over the Gulf of Venezuela, an area with petroleum potential. Their desire for the black gold has not only shaped policy decisions on whether to participate in many international treaties, but has also attempted against their diplomatic and economic relations.

Venezuela and Colombia survived more than three hundred years under Spanish rule before achieving independence in the nineteenth century. Ever since, their representatives have struggled to delineate their jurisdictional boundaries. The negotiations began in 1833 and when they finished in 1941, the neighbors had only settled their land frontier but their marine spaces delimitation remained controversial.

Discussions took place throughout the twentieth century without any arrangement and nowadays, the continental shelf delimitation of the Gulf of Venezuela and the marine rights of a small group of islands located at the entrance to the Gulf are the matter subject of debate.

The history of the dispute is simple. After achieving independence from Spain in 1810, Venezuela and Colombia were part of a nation called Gran Colombia. In 1829, Venezuela separated from Gran Colombia to become an independent nation and incorporated into its Constitution the doctrine of uti possidetis juris of 1810, meaning that the country inherited the original borders of the previous state (meaning, Capitanía General de Venezuela, as it was called before claiming its independence. Colombia did the same and thus, both Colombia and Venezuela’s territorial limits should have remained the same as under Spanish administration. However, the exact borders were impossible to ascertain and the controversy arose.

The first attempt to settle the conflict was in 1833, when Colombia and Venezuela negotiated the Michelena-Pombo treaty. However, the treaty failed despite Colombia’s ratification, since the Venezuela legislature formally rejected the treaty in 1840. Venezuelan Congressmen argued that their country would lose sixty-two miles of coastline, together with its corresponding land. The funny thing these days is that if ratified by the Venezuelan legislature, the Michelena-Pombo treaty would have granted Colombia roughly two-thirds of the Guajira Peninsula but no land with coastline on the Gulf.

Following the failure of Michelena-Pombo treaty came the Spanish Arbitral Award of 1891, arbitration in charge of King Alfonso XII of Spain. In 1885 the Spanish King died and Queen Maria Cristina was the one who handed down the award in 1891. The award designated the starting demarcation on the Atlantic coast on a location that was never found by either of the parties. The imprecision of the Award was an unbeatable obstacle to the correct demarcation.

Colombia and Venezuela also tried a Swiss Arbitral Award, but the real solution came in 1941, with the Santos-López Contreras Treaty, instrument that granted Colombia a small coastline on the Gulf, a marine space that had been traditionally Venezuelan. Nevertheless, such treaty made no reference to the maritime rights in the Gulf and the delimitation of marine and submarine areas between the two states is still an issue.

It is impossible not to resort in international law with the purpose of seeking a legal solution to the dispute. Although international law does not necessarily provide the solution to the problem, a review of the actual international legal order regarding law of the sea is very useful. Traditionally, the territorial sea was considered to extend only three miles from the coastal state baseline. Since mid-twentieth century, most States have claimed a twelve-mile limit and other States, including most of Latin America, have emphasized their rights to a 200-mile territorial sea.

The right to extract minerals from the sea prompted to the creation of the continental shelf as a legal concept. Such concept emerged on the international sphere in 1958, with the appearance of the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. Such Convention, defined the continental shelf in terms of its exploitability rather than upon its geological nature. According to Article 1, the term “continental shelf” refers:
(a) to the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas adjacent to the coast but outside the area of the territorial sea, to a depth of 200 metres or, beyond that limit, to where the depth of the superjacent waters admits of the exploitation of the natural resources of the said areas; (b) to the seabed and subsoil of similar submarine areas adjacent to the coasts of islands.
The equidistance provision suffered a review by the International Court of Justice in the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases. The Court held that the use of the equidistance method was not obligatory as between the parties and the principles enumerated in Article 6 of the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases did not constitute customary international law. The Court expressly held:
Delimitation is to be effected by agreement in accordance with equitable principles, and taking account of all the relevant circumstances, in such a way as to leave as much as possible to each Party all those parts of the continental shelf that constitute a natural prolongation of its land territory into and under the sea, without encroachment on the natural prolongation of the land territory of the others.
In 1994 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) went into effect, and by 2006, 149 countries had ratified it. By defining the concepts of territorial sea, contiguous zone, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, UNCLOS has brought consistency to the seaward extent of coastal nations’ jurisdictional claims.

Regarding territorial sea, UNCLOS sets a twelve-mile limit. Its Article 3 establishes that all States have the right to establish the breadth of the territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding twelve nautical miles from the baselines. Still, under the new twenty-four mile limit, the concept of contiguous zones has acquired relevance, and in 1997 more than fifty states had claimed a contiguous zone.

UNCLOS fails to provide a solution to the Gulf problem, especially since neither Colombia nor Venezuela is party to it. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the 1958 Continental Shelf Convention might still bind both countries, particularly because States are bound by customary international law.

Going back to our central issue, is very important to keep in mind that the Gulf is of vital economic importance to Venezuela, since navigation rights are crucial to minimize oil transportation costs. The Gulf is the only route connecting Lake Maracaibo with the Caribbean Sea and world oil markets. Moreover, the city of Maracaibo is significant because it holds one of the four major Venezuelan oil fields, and Maracaibo is very close to the Texas Port. Therefore, if Colombia were to have sovereign rights on the Gulf and proceeded unilaterally to exploitation of its oil reserves, it would obstruct the shipping lanes of Venezuelan oil tankers leaving Maracaibo.

Colombia position is a line that divides the Gulf in half between the opposite peninsulas of Guajira and Paraguaná and then apply the equidistant principle between the adjacent States, starting at Castilletes. Such proposition is legally based on Article 6 of the Continental Shelf Convention. Venezuela counters that the equidistant principle is not the obligatory method of delimitation by referring to the ICJ decision on the North Sea Continental Shelf cases.

International law does not provide an answer to the maritime boundary dispute. No treaty article on continental shelf delimitation is binding concurrently upon Venezuelan and Colombia. Although both nations ratified the 1958 Continental Shelf Convention, Venezuela made a reservation to Article 6, which relates to the means used in delimiting continental shelf areas.

The Venezuelan delegate back then, mentioned that among the reasons for this reservation was the existence of “special circumstances” in the Gulf of Venezuela. Venezuela’s purpose in rejecting this provision was to exclude the principle of equidistance as the mandatory method of delimitation.

Additionally, there is not common understanding of customary maritime delimitation law and neither States are subject to the International Court of Justice compulsory jurisdiction, so it is impossible that the controversy will be solved by the Court without the express consent of both states.

The truth is that Colombia and Venezuela need oil. Both are important oil producers and Venezuela’s petroleum industry constitutes more than three-quarters of total Venezuelan export revenues, about half of total government revenues, and about one-third of the GDP. In order to maintain a solvent government and to preserve Chávez’s popularity through the funding of social programs, it is imperative that Chávez continues to pursue profitable oil undertakings. On the other hand, Colombia is the third largest Latin American oil exporter and has consistently been one of the United States’ top ten suppliers. Oil exportation provides a third of Colombia’s revenue, making it its number one exporting commodity.

Oil is power and the maritime delimitation between Colombia and Venezuela is a proof of such assertion. Anyhow, it is important to acknowledge that many times international law does not provide an answer to conflict between States and only the determination of the governments to solve the struggles will make a difference. If Chávez’s government gives away maritime rights, Venezuela and all the next governments will be forever bound to respect such agreement. It would be another disastrous legacy of Chávez and his fellows.