Books Developments in PIL Scholarship

Ryngaert’s Selfless Intervention – The Exercise of Jurisdiction in the Common Interest

Cedric Ryngaert, Professor of Public International Law at the Utrecht University, has kindly accepted to provide a presentation of his latest monograph, ‘Selfless Intervention – The Exercise of Jurisdiction in the Common Interest’ (Oxford University Press 2020). This post draws on the monograph’s concluding observations.

This monograph inquires how a cosmopolitan agenda could be implemented in the law of jurisdiction. At first sight, such an inquiry might look like an attempt at marrying fire and ice. Cosmopolitans tend to focus on the individual as the ultimate unit of moral concern, and are interested in bringing about ‘global justice’ (whether of the human or environmental variant), regardless of geographical location. They are always concerned with the negotiation and overcoming of delineated political borders. In contrast, the law of jurisdiction, given its close connection to the seminal concept of state sovereignty in international relations, has ‘borders’ written all over it.

Nevertheless, political allegiance to territorially delineated states and allegiance to an international community project based on universal human solidarity need not be mutually exclusive. Kwame Appiah, one of the leading political philosophers of cosmopolitanism, has coined the term ‘constitutional patriotism’ in his respect: ‘We cosmopolitans can be patriots, loving our homelands (not only the states where we were born but the states where we grew up and the states where we live); our loyalty to humankind so vast, so abstract, a unity does not deprive us of the capacity to care for lives nearer by.’ Accordingly, the actual existence of borders need not prove fatal to the cosmopolitan project.

Some authors have even suggested that the ‘state’ could be considered as a cosmopolitan construct in its own right. A somewhat less extreme position, taken by this monograph, is that states may perhaps have primarily been set up or conceived to serve their own citizens, but that this does not bar them from serving a global citizenship and protecting humankind’s common concerns. This cosmopolitan, global citizenship-based authority and responsibility of states has gained increased attention from political theorists disenchanted with the disconnect between moral idealism and actual international political practice, which revolves very much around states indeed. Thus, in a praiseworthy and wide-ranging volume on the cosmopolitan responsibilities of the state (2019), Beardsworth et al investigate ‘the possibility that states can become bearers of cosmopolitan responsibilities while also remaining vehicles for popular self-determination’. Along the same lines, for an international lawyer interested in jurisdictional questions, the challenge is to investigate how the law of state jurisdiction – the initial aim of which was to prevent state sovereignties from clashing with each other – is, and can be reinterpreted to serve cosmopolitan or ‘selfless’ ends, alongside parochial, national interest-based ends.

Selfless Intervention, Jurisdiction and State Sovereignty

Inevitably, the quest to conceive the notion of jurisdiction as a vehicle for selfless intervention by states is closely bound up with epistemic evolutions regarding jurisdiction’s twin concept of state sovereignty. After all, jurisdiction is the legal emanation of the political notion of state sovereignty. The state manifests its sovereign power by exercising jurisdiction, ie prescribing and enforcing its laws, and adjudicating disputes on the basis of these laws. In the monograph I argue that the concept of sovereignty is malleable and allows for novel, contemporary understandings of sovereignty being in the service of the international community. It is logical, then, that jurisdiction could fulfil the same function.

However, jurisdiction is not simply an emanation of sovereignty, ie originating or issuing from sovereignty. As Irani suggested, jurisdictional assertions

not only form, border, and construct “the state”: they are the state. The state is instantiated in its jurisdictional assertions … Changing jurisdictional assertions do not simply change what “the state” does: they further change what the state is, who and what it includes and excludes, and crucially, where it is located.

Thus, the nature of the state and of state sovereignty may change as a result of actual jurisdictional practices. This also means that jurisdictional assertions may yield the formation of new political communities that do not necessarily track the physical borders of the state. For our research object, it means that a state becomes cosmopolitan to the extent that it engages in cosmopolitan jurisdictional practices. Accordingly, to fully grasp the contemporary epistemic transformation of state sovereignty, a fine-grained analysis of actual instances of the exercise of  jurisdiction by states is imperative.

The Capaciousness of Territoriality

In the monograph I demonstrate that, regardless of the dynamics of globalization, interconnectedness, deterritorialization or international solidarity characterizing the current era, when addressing transnational or global challenges, states continue to give pride of place to the core principle of the law of jurisdiction: the principle of territoriality. While use of territoriality to capture the extraterritorial may seem somewhat incongruous, as Rajkovic has pointed out, that ‘territorial boundaries have been always, to varying degrees, in temporal flux.’ Hence, the newly minted concept of ‘territorial extension’, which has played a prominent role in this monograph, may not be a conceptual revolution in the law of jurisdiction. Still,  it does point to an expanding state praxis of states formally relying on territoriality to – in fact – reach beyond state borders.

Also to roll out a cosmopolitan agenda, the principle of territoriality has been the primary jurisdictional gateway. To be true, universality – which is triggered by the gravity of an offence rather than a (territorial) connection to the regulating state – is well-known in the law of jurisdiction, but it only has purchase in respect of a limited number of offences, and arguably only in the field of criminal law. This renders universality, as it is currently understood, ill-suited to address the range of global governance challenges confronting humanity, eg climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, or corporate human rights abuses. Territoriality then emerges as an unlikely savior for the cosmopolitan project, as its capaciousness allows states to ‘territorialize the extraterritorial’ and contribute to the realization of global justice.

There are many instances of states using a territorial hook to address essentially extraterritorial activities, both historic and more recent ones. Some of these jurisdictional assertions have a cosmopolitan dimension, in that they have the realization of global justice as their goal (deontological cosmopolitanism), or as their effect (consequentialist cosmopolitanism). In the field of criminal law, where the origins of the international law of jurisdiction lie, the long-standing ubiquity principle has enabled states to exercise territorial jurisdiction over the whole of an offence as soon as a constituent element could be located on the territory. The seminal idea that it suffices for an element of a particular offense or event to be linked to the territory for territorial jurisdiction to be validly exercised, has cast a long shadow. It has paved the way for a host of jurisdictional assertions that rely on tenuous, artificial or even fictitious territorial connections, assertions which may also serve the common interest. In the monograph I explain how territoriality has been creatively used in such diverse areas as the environment, fisheries, business and human rights litigation, and data protection, to further (sometimes only nascent) global values and common interests.

This area analysis is by no means exhaustive. Also, in other areas, which are not addressed in detail in the monograph, has territoriality been similarly instrumentalized, such as competition law, foreign corrupt practices, and secondary sanctions legislation.  In the field of competition law, US and European courts have exercised jurisdiction over foreign-origin restrictive practices that are implemented or have direct, substantial, and reasonably foreseeable anti-competitive effects on the territory. While this effects jurisdiction has traditionally been relied upon to protect the national economy, wider goals such as boosting global deterrence of anti-competitive conduct and increasing global welfare for both domestic and foreign consumers have been propounded and arguably pursued. Also as regards enforcement of foreign corrupt practices and economic sanctions legislation, which could be considered cosmopolitan insofar as this contributes to the stamping out of global corrupt practices blighting the developmental prospects of foreign populations, or to clamping down on commercial transactions with regimes violating human rights or threatening international security, have courts, especially US courts, given wide interpretations to territoriality. All this speaks to the enduring attractiveness of territoriality to address transnational and global challenges.

Territoriality and the Common Interest

In themselves, some territorial connections may be too tenuous to support successful reliance on the territoriality principle. After all, the permissive principles of jurisdiction should be interpreted in light of the substantial connection requirement undergirding the law of jurisdiction. However, one of the main arguments in this monograph is that the legality of jurisdictional assertions resting on weak territorial links may be boosted by these assertions’ very contribution to the common interest, and preferably by their embeddedness in, or relationship with international regulatory instruments. Thus, trade restrictions aimed at tackling climate change may derive their jurisdictional legality from their contribution to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, regardless of the diffuse character of the effects which emissions tend to have on the territory of the regulating state. By the same token, the insertion of an unqualified territorial principle in the UN Convention against Corruption and the OECD Convention against Bribery may give international backing for wide interpretations of the principle by Contracting Parties; the nature of corruption as a global scourge may compensate for the weak territorial link which certain foreign practices may have.

It could even be argued that, from a normative perspective, territoriality should more often, and more expansively be relied on when it comes to global values and common interests, in order to prevent that no state’s law applies. As it happens, some conventions require that states exercise territorial jurisdiction, not only in the field of core international crimes (eg torture), but also as regards transnational offences such as corruption. The Port State Measures Agreement, for its part, requires that states deny entry or privileges to visiting foreign-flagged vessels which engaged in IUU fishing. Also human rights treaties or fundamental rights instruments may mandate that states exercise their jurisdiction more vigorously. The human right to a remedy may require state courts to give a liberal interpretation to principles of adjudicatory jurisdiction, such as the principles of domicile, connected claims, or forum of necessity (all of which can be considered as variations of territoriality), so that victims of (corporate) human rights abuses have their day in court, even if they sustained harm outside the territory. In the same vein, the nature of data protection as a fundamental right in the EU exerts pressure on EU regulators and courts to give wide interpretations to territorial jurisdiction with a view to safeguarding the rights of EU residents.

Conversely, expansive jurisdictional assertions which do not further widely recognized common interests may, in the absence of a strong nexus with the regulating state, be more difficult to justify. For instance, the US imposition of ‘secondary’ sanctions on non-US persons engaging in commercial transactions with non-US sanctioned entities may well violate the law of jurisdiction, as the territorial or personal nexus of sanctions with the US is typically very tenuous, and such sanctions may not give effect to an international consensus on the harmful activities of the sanctioned entity. Also, expansive assertions of effects-based jurisdiction in the field of competition (antitrust) law may be problematic, insofar as such assertions are based on weak territorial connections, and insofar as an international agreement on the illegality of particular anti-competitive practices remains elusive. Jurisdictional assertions that are not based on a strong nexus to the state and do not build on international instruments recognizing particular values and common interests are likely to unjustifiably intrude on the policy space of other states and violate the principle of non-intervention.

This is not to say, however, that jurisdictional assertions of which the object is internationally recognized, pass muster with the law of jurisdiction as soon as some territorial link can be discerned, however tenuous. To prevent that territorial jurisdiction degenerates into connectionless universal jurisdiction, a quantum of (territorial) connection may still be required. This may prevent the eruption of international conflict, and the wasting of precious domestic resources. In light of loss of territoriality in an era of economic globalization and of revolutions in communication technology, the quest for this required quantum under customary international law in still on-going.

Efforts at restricting the reach of territoriality speak to a desire to safeguard the traditional role of the principle of territoriality as a principle of jurisdictional order rather than justice. In its original Westphalian incarnation, territoriality aims at delimiting spheres of competence and preventing undue intervention in other states’ affairs. As the limits of territoriality are pushed to almost breaking point in order to address global and transnational challenges, some pushback against overly loose interpretations which undermine the principle’s function as competence-delimitator is expected. At the same time, precisely because of the poor fit of the concept of territoriality and the reality of global challenges, more revolutionary jurisdictional thinking no longer focuses on territoriality as the main jurisdictional linchpin, but instead suggests reliance on other connections to the regulating state, or on the goals of regulatory intervention. As regards connections, scholars of global legal pluralism have urged increased attention to personal or community connections, whereas others have emphasized the substantiality of connections mitigated by the principle of reasonableness. Especially in the context of access to data in the ‘extraterritorial cloud’, multiple, technology-driven connecting criteria have been proposed. Yet others have advanced a broad construction of the national interest as the jurisdictional trigger, or suggested conceiving of cosmopolitan jurisdiction as a form of functional jurisdiction, the exercise of which is, in given circumstances, justified by its furthering of the common interest. At the far end of the spectrum, the link between jurisdiction and the state has been abandoned altogether, and jurisdictional empowerment of private actors in a transnational legal space has been mooted.

It is appropriate to observe, finally, that no scheme of jurisdictional (al-)location is ever politically neutral. All schemes have important distributive effects, in that it may further the interests of one actor (eg a multinational corporation) to the detriment of those of another (eg victims of human rights abuses).


However the exercise of state jurisdiction in the common interest is doctrinally conceived (as a form of territorial, community, functional, or universal jurisdiction), care should be taken to prevent jurisdictional overreach and imperial imposition. After all, such jurisdiction is enacted unilaterally by individual states or regional organizations, even if the common interest which is (supposedly) served is international in nature. Unilateral action carries the risk that the regulating state imposes its own value conceptions and furthers its own interests, thereby impinging on foreign persons’ right to self-government. To limit this risk, in the monograph I suggest a number of techniques of restraint, such as allowing foreign affected states, communities and persons a voice in the design and enforcement of regulation with extraterritorial effect, recognition of equivalent foreign regulation, and compensation of affected persons and entities. These techniques of jurisdictional reasonableness discipline unilateralism and increase its legitimacy as a tool to further the common interest in the absence of adequate multilateral or host state regulation and enforcement.

Techniques of restraint should however not be interpreted too strictly lest states prove unwilling to exercise their jurisdiction. Bearing in mind that global public goods tend to be underprovided because of free-riding, the risk of normative conflicts among states should not be inflated. Thus, states should be offered sufficient jurisdictional leeway to assume their responsibility in respect of the common interest. To give just one example, international comity-inspired principles of adjudicatory jurisdiction may be in need of an overhaul, or at least a more liberal interpretation, so that they can be more effectively relied on to deliver justice for individuals suffering extraterritorial human rights abuses.

Selfless Intervention and the National Interest

In spite of the title of the monograph, ultimately, selfless intervention remains somewhat of a mirage. As I argue in the monograph, states are unlikely to exercise jurisdiction in the common interest if it is not also somehow in their own interests. In this respect, states may consider the existence of a jurisdictional connection as a proxy for the existence of an interest, so that framing extraterritorial as territorial conduct (‘territorializing the extraterritorial’) may have enforcement advantages. In practice, however, especially in the social, economic and environmental fields, a domestic rule integrity logic tends to inform common interest-oriented unilateralism. The danger of foreign regulatory leakage as a result of strict domestic regulation serving common interests (eg addressing climate change, combating foreign corrupt practices, protecting data) more or less compels first-moving states to extend their regulation extraterritorially. In so doing, states pursue prima facie parochial interests (safeguarding the competitive opportunities of their own businesses) alongside common interests.

In the field of human rights and international crimes, a less selfish justice logic may be expected, but also there, extra-legal incentives may be required before states exercise their jurisdiction. For instance, Germany’s vigorous prosecution of Syrian war criminals, mainly under the universality principle, may be informed by the presence of a large number of Syrian refugees, whose integration in Germany might be furthered in case their torturers (some of whom have posed as refugees themselves) are brought to justice. Alternatively, a state’s exercise of jurisdiction over gross human rights violations could be informed by a desire to brandish its liberal values and to set itself apart from an amoral world dominated by Realpolitik.

Concluding Observations: Unilateralism as Global Governance

Faced with governance deficits at international and national levels, third states’ exercise of unilateral jurisdiction has its rightful place in the international legal order, as third state legal prescription and adjudication may well be the only means to safeguard common interests. Therefore, states’ extensions of national laws into the global sphere can promote world order and justice. However, safety valves should be provided to ensure that such jurisdiction, as a tool of global governance, is exercised responsibly and reasonably. Ideally, unilateral jurisdiction with extraterritorial effects is just a temporary means of providing protection and justice. It should not displace multilateral and foreign regulation and enforcement, but rather emphasize the latter’s urgency. Obviously, this regulation and enforcement are likely to mirror the preferences of powerful first-moving states, who may only be willing to forego their unilateralism provided that international and foreign norms and practices approximate their own. Such ‘contingent unilateralism’ should not be considered as holding the multilateral process hostage, but rather as a welcome tool to overcome the tyranny of consent and address its anti-commons streak.

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