Home Archive for category "International Criminal Law"

European Court Tackles the Definition of Genocide

Published on October 27, 2015        Author: 

Last week the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered a very interesting judgment in Vasiliauskas v. Lithuania, no. 35343/05, in which it examined in detail the definition of the crime of genocide. This is another one in a series of relatively sui generis cases, mostly coming from the Baltic states, dealing with historical crimes and pleaded under Article 7 ECHR, which incorporates the nullum crimen sine lege principle. The basic issue in the case was that the applicant, who worked for Soviet security services and was involved in the killings of Lithuanian partisans, was convicted of genocide by Lithuanian courts after the resumption of independence by the Baltic states, under the new Lithuanian Criminal Code which explicitly had retroactive application.

The question that the Court had to answer, therefore, was whether the applicant’s conviction for genocide was reasonably foreseeable, in light of international law as it stood in 1953, when the crime was committed. The Court comes out terribly split on the outcome, ruling by 9 votes to 8 that the conviction was not foreseeable and that there was a violation of Article 7.

The majority and the minority both agree that customary international law at the time prohibited genocide, in parallel to the 1948 Genocide Convention. They also agree that the list of protected groups under Article II of the Convention, which is reflective of custom, deliberately excluded political groups. Thus, a conviction for genocide would not have been sound if the Soviets were ‘merely’ destroying their political opponents in Lithuania. But where the case really gets interesting is in the analysis of the ‘in part’ element of genocidal intent. Here the minority believes that it is perfectly fine to first define the protected group as ethnic Lithuanians, and then further define a ‘part’ of that group as Lithuanian partisans or opponents of Soviet rule. The majority, on the other hand, believes that while the idea of the ‘part’ of a group could foreseeably be thought of in numerical terms in 1953, it was not foreseeable that the part could also be defined in qualitative terms, as emerged from the case law of modern international criminal tribunals (para. 177). This last point is I think highly problematic, since those individuals convicted for intending to destroy a part of a group in modern trials could then also say that their convictions violated nullum crimen, since their crimes also preceded in time the jurisprudence of the tribunals who convicted them – that this happened by 5 or 10 years rather than 50 seems entirely immaterial.

On the other hand, accepting the minority’s approach to the definition of a ‘part’ of a group would expand the scope of genocide far beyond the approach taken so far in international criminal law. For example, if the applicant had intended to kill all gay Lithuanians or all disabled Lithuanians this would, under the minority’s reasoning as far as I understand it, also constitute genocide, even though sexual orientation or disability are not covered by the Genocide Convention. Both groups would be ‘substantial’ in number, much like the partisans. But in any event the whole case is yet another demonstration of the highly problematic and morally arbitrary nature of the definition of genocide, which is unfortunately coupled with the peculiar political magic that the word has. An excessive focus on that crime by prosecutors, judges and in public discourse only serves to systematically devalue other crimes against international law, be it in Bosnia, Darfur, Cambodia, or indeed in Soviet-controlled Lithuania.

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Mass killings of Tamil civilians downplayed in new UN report on Sri Lanka, silent on genocide question

Published on October 19, 2015        Author: 

On 1 October 2015 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by consensus the resolution ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’. The basis for the resolution was the release and consideration of the long awaited Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) (see here for links to the summary and full reports).

Strikingly, OISL moves away from the position on mass civilian killings taken in an earlier UN report of 2011 (see EJIL: Talk! post here) (2011 Report). According to the 2011 Report, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed between January and May 2009, in particular the final weeks leading up to the government declaration of victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who immediately prior to this period controlled most of the Tamil-dominated Vanni region of the island. The 2011 Report found reasonable grounds to believe that most of these deaths were the result of intentional government attacks directed at civilians, amounting to crimes against humanity. In contrast OISL neglects to estimate the scale of deaths and considers these same attacks only as a set of potential war crimes, denying their widespread and systematic nature against a civilian population. The new report which proposes a domestically-based war crimes mechanism shifts attention away from the most egregious international crimes of the government in the 2011 Report, leaving the demands of Tamil representatives for consideration of the crime of genocide unaddressed. 

The 2011 Report places these mass killings prominently, finding:

“… Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the [LTTE-held] Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths. This campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni… The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near [ICRC] ships that were coming to pick up the wounded… It shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the [UN], the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling…The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies … To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians who remained in the conflict zone. Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days.” (p.ii. “Executive Summary, Allegations found credible by the Panel”)

Read the rest of this entry…

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An Assessment of the Colombian-FARC ‘Peace Jurisdiction’ Agreement

Published on September 29, 2015        Author: 

Last week Wednesday (23 September 2015), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met in Cuba with the leader of the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC (alias Timochenko”), to publicly announce the agreement to establish a ‘Special Peace Jurisdiction’ reached between the Government and FARC. This is certainly a milestone in the Colombian peace process. While many local and international voices (including heads of government and State of other countries) have been supportive of the agreement (see here and here), a few have rejected its content considering that it fosters impunity. Among those who have objected to the agreement is Alvaro Uribe, the former Colombian president who has been very vocal in his opposition to the conditions of the current peace process and has favored either a militaristic strategy or one in which the guerrilla members subject themselves to ordinary criminal sanctions.

Given the controversy, it is worth briefly considering whether, as critics pose, the agreement would be contrary to international law standards or whether, according to its supporters, it is not only consistent with them but proves to be a unique opportunity to end the conflict with the FARC, which is the oldest operating guerrilla movement in the world.

To do this, it is necessary to briefly look at the content of the agreement. In assessing the agreement, it is important to bear in mind that its full contents are yet to be revealed, and indeed some aspects have not been fleshed out fully. However, the main points of the agreement are set out in the oral statements of the Colombian President and, in greater detail, in written form in a joint communiqué, which can be found (in Spanish) in the official webpage of the Colombian presidency.

The “Special Peace Jurisdiction” – A new Mixed Tribunal?

The key aspect of the agreement is the creation of a judicial body –  ‘Special Peace Jurisdiction’ – which will make decisions on cases related to the Colombian armed conflict and has the capacity to issue extraordinary decisions that differ from those of ordinary criminal trials. The members of the body will mostly be Colombians but it will also include a few foreigners (point 3 of the joint communiqué). Read the rest of this entry…

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Tears in Our Eyes: Third State Obligations in International Law

Published on July 30, 2015        Author: 

In early January 2015 the Republic of South Korea sold 1.9 million tear gas canisters to Turkey. With this sale came much campaigning against it. Amnesty International’s “Korea, do not sell us tear gas” campaign received over 50,000 signatures of support. The goal of this campaign was to highlight how the Turkish police force has been and continues to be to this day reckless and excessive in its use of tear gas on certain domestic demonstrations. Reckless and excessive use which, according to data collected by the Turkey Human Rights Joint Platform, led to the death of 19 Turkish citizens between 2006 and 2013 — including four children.

The sale of such large quantities of tear gas to a country that has a proven track record of using it frequently and recklessly raises important questions of international law. It raises questions in particular with regard to the responsibility of third states for internationally wrongful acts and the standard of proof required to establish such responsibility. Put simply, did South Korea commit an internationally wrongful act when it sold tear gas to Turkey?

Tear gas and international law

The name tear gas encompasses a group of substances that irritate mucous membranes and cause stinging sensations and tears. The effect of tear gas is normally considered temporary for a healthy adult so long as they are able to breathe fresh air shortly after exposure. Fatalities have been caused when tear gas has been used in closed spaces, on unhealthy adults or the elderly, or when canisters have been fired directly at protesters.

The use of tear gas is prohibited in wartime both by the 1925 Gas Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.  The 1993 Convention, however, explicitly includes a clause in Article 1(5), inserted at the insistence of the United States, stating that “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.” Article II(7) of the 1993 Convention further defines a “Riot Control Agent” as “Any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” This clause, by implication, signals a regime of permissibility for riot control agents — including tear gas — during peacetime. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Shameful Twenty Years of Srebrenica

Published on July 13, 2015        Author: 

In the great catalogue of human misery, the July 1995 Srebrenica genocide merits a special mention. But as horrible as the slaughter of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys was – unquestionably the worst crime of the whole brutal Bosnian conflict – the repeated, ongoing and unrelenting denial of the crime is if not worse, then at least as depressing. Today, twenty years on, that revisionist denial is strongest where it matters – in Republika Srpska and in Serbia – and its strength demonstrates the continued, long-term inability of these communities to come to terms with the past.

The denial is manifold, in forms both hard and soft. It ranges from a complete rejection that any crime took place, to disputing the number of victims or who the victims were, to emphasizing crimes against Serbs around Srebrenica or inflating the numbers of Serbs killed, to disputing the characterization of the crime as genocide as if that makes some actual moral difference. And, it needs to be said, that denial is virtually unaffected by whatever the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the International Court of Justice said on the matter.

To demonstrate the scale of denial in cold, hard numbers, it suffices to take a look at a February 2012 survey of public opinion in Bosnia, sponsored by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and the OSCE and conducted by Ipsos Strategic Marketing (detailed results on file with me). The survey found that of the (mostly Serb) population of the Republika Srpska only 59.2% say that they even heard of a massacre in Srebrenica, while only 34.8% of the people who say that they’ve heard of the crime believe that it actually happened. Thus, of the whole RS population 40.8% say they’ve never even heard of any massacre in Srebrenica, 38.6% say that they’ve heard of it but that it never happened, and only 20.6% believe it did. That, dear readers, is what ‘truth and reconciliation’ in today’s Bosnia look like.

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The Emerging Reparations Case-Law of the ICC Appeals Chamber in Comparative Perspective

Published on June 12, 2015        Author: 

Reparations for victims of international crimes or serious human rights violations have received increasing attention from international courts. The most recent example is the Judgment on the Appeals against the “Decision establishing the principles and procedures to be applied to reparations” rendered by the Appeals Chamber (AC) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Lubanga on 3 March 2015. (See this previous post.) The present contribution compares how three key reparations issues are addressed by the ICC Appeals Chamber and by two other courts: the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). Besides the ICC, the ECCC is the only international or hybrid criminal court where victims can claim reparations. The IACtHR’s reparations case-law has been seminal for decades, and references to its case-law by the ICC and ECCC reflect an ongoing dialogue. The three issues on which the courts are compared are: who can claim reparations, who is obliged to pay reparations, and what reparations can victims obtain

Who can claim and benefit from reparations?

Under rule 85(a) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence (RPE), victims are “natural persons who have suffered harm as a result of the commission of any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court”. Only victims who suffered harm as a result of the crimes for which the accused was convicted are eligible to claim reparations against him/her (AC Judgment, para. 8). At the ECCC, rule 23bis(1) is the equivalent rule 85(a) defining victims. However, unlike the ICC, the ECCC rules and case-law require a direct causal link between the victim’s harm and the crimes for which the accused was convicted (rule 23bis(1); Case 002/01, Trial Chamber Judgment, para. 1114).

Given the absence of a direct causal link requirement before the ICC, the AC should have considered sexual and gender-based violence as harm resulting from the crimes for which Lubanga was convicted (AC Judgment, paras. 196-198). During his trial, there was robust evidence of sexual exploitation of minors by armed forces or groups. The UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict considered such sexual exploitation as providing essential support to the armed groups and, thus, as active participation in hostilities (Lubanga, Trial Judgment, para. 630). Accordingly, this sexual exploitation was arguably linked to the child soldiers-related crimes for which Lubanga was convicted. The AC should therefore have upheld the Trial Chamber’s finding of reparable harm from sexual and gender violence (paras. 207-209). Read the rest of this entry…

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What Lies Beneath the ‘G’ Word? Genocide-Labelling and Fact-Finding at the UN

Published on May 28, 2015        Author: 

In late 2013, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide warned that “there is a risk of genocide” in the Central African Republic (CAR). A year later, with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, a UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) determined that genocide had not occurred because “the threshold requirement to prove the existence of the necessary element of genocidal intent ha[d] not been established…” (Executive Summary). Their answer seems clear, and yet this post will argue the Commission may have reached the wrong conclusion. In doing so, it will also draw attention to discrepancies between the UN’s classifications of genocide and raise questions about the powers of fact-finding bodies more generally.

It should be noted at the outset that the CoI left little doubt that serious crimes had been committed in CAR. Established at the request of the Security Council, the Commission had a mandate to investigate violations dating back to January 2013 when Séléka fighters began their march on CAR’s capital, Bangui. Though some of the worst violence took place on its watch, the Commission could not “establish with any degree of accuracy the number of people who were killed in the conflict.” Conceding that the available estimates “fail to capture the full magnitude of the killings that occurred”, it nevertheless concluded that “all the parties were involved in serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross abuses of human rights including rape and other gender based sexual offences and violations.”

What about genocide?

The CoI’s analysis of this key question begins with the applicable law, where it notes that genocide requires the actus reus (‘specific acts committed against specific groups’), the mens rea of specific (genocidal) intent, and – in line with the Rome Statute’s Elements of Crimes – ‘a manifest pattern of similar conduct directed against the targeted group’ (para. 450). Against this backdrop, the report establishes that the genocide label would prima facie apply only to acts committed by the Christian anti-balaka against CAR’s Muslims. Crucially, genocide would not be applicable to attacks committed by Muslims against Christians. The Commission then assesses the case law of several tribunals in order to distinguish ethnic cleansing from genocide.

This is where the legal analysis takes a perplexing turn. Before it has a chance to examine the legal elements of genocide, the CoI says (para. 452):

…the information available to it reveals repeated instances of crimes against humanity amounting to the fact pattern of ethnic cleansing committed by the anti-balaka in the areas in which Muslims had been living. In terms of criminal responsibility, however, the Commission is of the view that these acts of ethnic cleansing would best be prosecuted with (sic) under the rubric of crimes against humanity, which is the crime category that is explicitly recognized in the Rome Statute and in the relevant legislation of the CAR… [T]he facts of the situation indicated that… crimes against humanity… capture the full essence of the policy of ethnic cleansing that was pursued.

There are two problems with this conclusion. Read the rest of this entry…

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Mexico: The War on Drugs and the Boundaries of Crimes Against Humanity

Published on May 26, 2015        Author: 

Mexico ratified the International Criminal Court (ICC) Statute in 2006. Since that time, in the context of the ongoing conflict with drug cartels, there are credible reports (from governmental and non-governmental sources) of tens of thousands of killings, tens of thousands of disappearances, and thousands of cases of torture. While the precise figures are disputed, the numbers are large. The 2014 kidnapping and disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students by police drew international outrage, but it is part of a bigger pattern.   In terms of the scale and nature of the crimes, these figures would appear to place the situation among the gravest within the ICC’s jurisdiction. Yet international criminal lawyers generally tend to give limited attention to the violence in Mexico, and hesitate to apply the label of crimes against humanity.

Against compartmentalization: drug-related violence as crimes against humanity?

In international criminal law practice, we are most accustomed to two configurations of crimes against humanity: state repression of political opponents, and atrocities by parties to armed conflict. By contrast, we tend to label the violence in Mexico as “drug-related violence” and therefore not as crimes against humanity.

But should we separate crimes into watertight compartments? After all, we recognize that an act of terrorism can also be a crime against humanity or war crime. We should not assume that organized crime, or responses to organized crime, must fall into a completely separate compartment. Instead, we should look at the elements of crimes against humanity. The motives behind the crimes (eg. economic motives or the laudable goal of restraining cartels) do not per se prevent widespread and systematic violence against civilians from constituting crimes against humanity.

Addressing factual controversy

Another obstacle is the difficulty of ascertaining the scope and patterns of the crimes, given the scale of crimes (thousands of killings and disappearances) and limited records. The Mexican government has launched several important initiatives to collect and systematize information on crimes and victimization, and NGOs have also embarked on valuable projects. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Armenian “Genocide”?

Published on May 11, 2015        Author: 

Given the difficulty in proving the special intent to destroy, the charge of genocide is not one to be brought lightly.

No-one can reasonably argue with the clear statements made by German President Joachim Gauck in his speech on Armenia held on 23 April 2015: “one hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of members of the Armenian people” became “the victims of planned and systematic murder”. It is probably also accurate to say that these acts, for which the Ottoman Empire was responsible, were perpetrated against the Armenians “because they were Armenians”. But did these acts really constitute “genocide”, as Gauck further stated, in a legal sense?

According to the Convention on Genocide adopted in 1948, we are facing a genocide when certain acts are committed against a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” with “the intent to destroy [it] in whole or in part”. The term derives from the Greek γένος (race, tribe) and the Latin caedere (to kill). The Armenians doubtlessly constitute such an (ethnic and religious) group; however, did the Turkish perpetrators really act with the required intent to destroy? Is it even possible to designate prior conduct using a legal category that did not exist at the time said conduct occurred?

These are by no means mere juristic quibbles. The prohibition of genocide constitutes so-called peremptory international law (ius cogens). The “prevention and punishment” demanded by the Convention is thus directed not only at the perpetrating and territorial State, but at all States on our planet. They are all called to prevent genocide and – if prevention is unsuccessful – to punish it. The extraordinary degree of wrongdoing inherent in genocide – the attack on one of the abovementioned groups and the denial of its right to exist implicit in this attack – makes it the “crime of crimes”, to which particular stigma is attached. Thus it is quite understandable that a State should try to defend itself against the stigmatisation associated with genocide. Read the rest of this entry…

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Reparative Justice after the Lubanga Appeals Judgment on Principles and Procedures of Reparation

Published on April 7, 2015        Author: 

On 3 March 2015, the Appeals Chamber (AC) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) rendered its judgment on the principles and procedures of reparation. The decision is of systemic significance for international criminal justice, since it establishes a liability regime for reparations that is grounded in the principle of accountability of the convicted person towards victims. This new “principle of liability to remedy harm’ complements the punitive dimensions of ICC justice (e.g. conviction, sentence). It differs from purely civil forms of liability due to its connection to criminal proceedings which requires reconciliation of both, the rights of victims and the rights of the convicted person. This contribution analyzes the merits and risks of the judgment It argues that the decision marks significant progress over the initial Trial Chamber decision (TC), since it increases the expressivist dimensions of reparation proceedings and the prospects of participatory justice. But it also highlights existing tensions in the decision, such as its limited attention to societal frictions created through reparations, and its minimalist approach to non-accountability related objectives of reparation.

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