Home International Criminal Law Archive for category "Genocide"

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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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.

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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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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On the Entirely Predictable Outcome of Croatia v. Serbia

Published on February 6, 2015        Author: 

This week the International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in the genocide case brought by Croatia against Serbia. The result was entirely predictable: the Court quite correctly dismissed both the Croatian claim and the Serbian counterclaim. I wrote about this on the blog before (here and here), and have also written a reaction piece intended for a lay audience for the Serbian online magazine Pescanik, which is available in English here. The nationalist reactions to and misinterpretations of the judgment in Croatia and Serbia have been equally predictable, if no less tiresome.

For its part, the Court displayed a laudable degree of both restraint (which is after all de rigueur for the ICJ) and consensus (not so much). The Court’s general approach was entirely consistent with its 2007 Bosnian Genocide judgment: repeatedly finding that acts that qualified as the actus reus of genocide were committed, but without the necessary mens rea (genocidal intent), so that there was no genocide, while the Court had no jurisdiction to determine state responsibility for any other internationally wrongful act. While there are some interesting paragraphs regarding the assessment of evidence etc, the Court basically completely followed the factual findings of the ICTY (including the controversial Gotovina appeals judgment), and rightly so. By following this general approach the Court entirely avoided some of the most interesting legal issues raised in the case, for example the question of state succession to responsibility (i.e. whether Serbia could have succeeded to the responsibility for a wrongful act of its predecessor state, the SFRY), or the question of the attribution to Serbia of the conduct of the Croatian Serb separatists by virtue of the relevant control tests.

The one question that did divide the Court was the issue of its temporal jurisdiction under the compromissory clause in Article IX of the Genocide Convention. By 11 votes to 6 the Court found that it did have the jurisdiction to examine Serbia’s responsibility for genocide allegedly committed by the SFRY (i.e. before Serbia’s independence) by virtue of succession to responsibility, while finding that it ultimately did not need to decide on the succession question because no genocide was committed (most notably during the destruction of the town of Vukovar by the Yugoslav National Army). A number of judges wrote separately on this point of the temporal extent of the Court’s jurisdiction.

On all other matters the judges were either unanimous or virtually unanimous. Even the Serbian judge ad hoc voted for the dismissal of the Serbian counterclaim, while the Croatian claim was rejected by 15 votes to 2, the two being the Croatian judge ad hoc (who wrote a rather half-hearted three-page dissenting opinion, which doesn’t really say much except that he dissents) and Judge Cancado Trindade. Judge Cancado Trindade indeed did not disappoint; in an awesome display of his Cancadotrindadeness he wrote an opinion of some 142 pages (the Court having written a total of 153), dissenting about, well, everything. The summary of his conclusions runs from ‘first’ to ‘fourty-fifth,’ and in Latin, as is only proper (that’s quadragesimus quintus for you h8ers out there).

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ICJ to Hand Down Croatia v. Serbia Genocide Judgment on 3 February

Published on January 22, 2015        Author: 

As reported in Serbian and Croatian media yesterday, and officially confirmed by the Court today (press release). As for what the Court will decide, it will most likely find that no crime in the conflict in Croatia constitutes genocide, that it lacks the jurisdiction to decide on the responsibility of either state for any other crime, and that accordingly it has to reject both Croatia’s claim and Serbia’s counterclaim. By ‘most likely’ read ‘virtually inevitable, so that I would fall of my chair if the Court did anything else’ – see more here.  We’ll see whether the Court will say something interesting on various ancillary substantive questions before it reaches its main conclusion.

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Towards a New Global Treaty on Crimes Against Humanity

Published on August 5, 2014        Author: 

Sadatl4Leila Nadya Sadat is the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and Israel Treiman Faculty Fellow at Washington University School of Law and has been the Director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute since 2007.

Douglas J. Pivnichny, JD, is the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute Fellow at Washington University School of DPivnichny photoLaw in St. Louis, Missouri, and a masters candidate in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

The Crimes Against Humanity Initiative and Recent Developments at the ILC

On Thursday, July 17, the International Law Commission moved the topic of crimes against humanity from its long-term to its active agenda and appointed Professor Sean D. Murphy as Special Rapporteur. The Rapporteur’s charge is to prepare a First Report, which will begin the process of proposing Draft Articles to the Commission for its approval. The expectation is that, in due course, the Commission will send a complete set of Draft Articles for use as a convention to the United Nations General Assembly. This was a crucial step in filling a normative gap that has persisted despite the development of international criminal law during the past decades:  the absence of a comprehensive global treaty on crimes against humanity.

The Commission’s interest in this topic was sparked by the work of the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, launched by Professor Leila Sadat of Washington University School of Law in 2008.  The Initiativeset out to study the current state of the law and sociological reality regarding the commission of crimes against humanity and to address the gap in the current international legal framework by drafting a global, comprehensive model convention on crimes against humanity. Ambitious in scope and conceptual design, the Initiative has been directed by a distinguished Steering Committee and consulted more than 300 experts in the course of elaborating and discussing the Proposed International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Humanity (Proposed Convention), published by Cambridge University Press in English, French and Spanish in Forging a Convention for Crimes Against Humanity (1st  ed., 2011; 2nd ed., 2013). Arabic, Chinese, German and Russian translations are also available. Read the rest of this entry…

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ICJ Opens Hearings in Croatia v. Serbia

Published on March 3, 2014        Author:

Cartoon by Corax, in the Danas newspaper.

Today the International Court of Justice opens a month of hearings in the pending case between Croatia and Serbia for state responsibility for genocide allegedly committed during the 1990s conflict. In the afternoon the Court will also be delivering its provisional measures order in Timor Leste v. Australia. The latter will at least to my mind be vastly more interesting than the former. Why? Because the outcome of the Croatia/Serbia case is a foregone conclusion, bearing in mind that the Court’s jurisdiction is limited solely to breaches of the Genocide Convention, and that it cannot rule on either party’s responsibility for any other wrongful acts, be it war crimes, crimes against humanity, or aggression.

In its 2007 Bosnian Genocide judgment the Court, relying on the findings of the ICTY, found that the ‘only’ instance of genocide in the otherwise far more brutal Bosnian conflict was Srebrenica, for which Serbia was not responsible, and did so by 13 votes to 2. It seems extremely unlikely that the Court will adopt a different methodological approach in the Croatian case, especially because nobody was even charged, let alone convicted, for genocide in Croatia by the ICTY. The (many) acts of ethnic cleansing committed by both sides in the Croatian conflict simply lack the requisite specific intent to physically or biologically destroy a protected group, and thus cannot reasonably be qualified as genocide. And without genocide, the Court is without jurisdiction.

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Dutch Supreme Court Affirms that Dutchbat Acted Unlawfully in Srebrenica

Published on September 8, 2013        Author: 

Tom Dannenbaum is a Visiting Lecturer in Law and Robina Foundation Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and a PhD candidate at Princeton University.

In a couple of posts in 2011, I discussed two nearly identical Hague Court of Appeal judgments on the liability of the Netherlands for the actions of Dutchbat at Srebrenica (see here and here). On Friday, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld both of those judgments. In what follows I’ll reference the Nuhanović decision.

The judgments are important on their own terms, but they are also significant in their implications for the Mothers of Srebrenica litigation against the Netherlands, particularly following the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights this summer upholding the Dutch courts’ acceptance of UN immunity in that context. Coincidentally, Dapo and Manuel Ventura posted on the ECtHR’s decision in Mothers of Srebrenica within minutes of the Dutch Supreme Court’s Nuhanović judgment. I connect back to their post below.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s strong approach to dual attribution, holding that it was possible that both the Netherlands and the UN had effective control over the same wrongful conduct and that attributing the conduct to the Netherlands did not in any way determine whether the UN also had effective control (such that it, too, could be attributed with the wrongdoing). (para 3.11.2). Relatedly, the Court also affirmed the power-to-prevent standard discussed in the second of my earlier posts (paras 3.11.3, 3.12.2, 3.12.3). I have advocated this standard at greater length elsewhere (here and here).

The aspect of Friday’s judgment that did the most work in going beyond the reasoning of the Court of Appeal was the Supreme Court’s discussion of extraterritoriality. It elaborated on two points in this respect (acknowledging explicitly that its discussion on this amounted to obiter dictum).

Read the rest of this entry…

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Mothers of Srebrenica: The Obligation to Prevent Genocide and Jus Cogens – Implications for Humanitarian Intervention

Published on September 6, 2013        Author: 

Manuel J. Ventura is a Director of The Peace and Justice Initiative and Dapo Akande is editor of EJIL:Talk!

The June 2013 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Stichting Mothers of Srebrenica and Others v. The Netherlands is the latest phase in the attempts by the relatives of those killed in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina to hold the UN (and/or The Netherlands) responsible for the inaction of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) – made up of Dutch peacekeepers – who stood aside while Srebrenica was overrun in July 1995. The subsequent events at the Srebrenica ‘safe area’ and the deaths of between 7,000-8,000 persons are by now well known. In the underlying proceedings in the Dutch Courts, the complainants did not seek to hold the UN responsible for the commission of genocide, but rather for the failure, in the applicant’s view, of the UN’s duty to prevent genocide. The Dutch courts held that the UN had immunity from domestic suit, even in the face of violations of jus cogens norms. The ECtHR agreed with the Dutch rulings on the immunity of the UN. It followed the ICJ’s holding in Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (Germany v. Italy; Greece Intervening) that ‘[i]nternational law does not support the position that a civil claim should override immunity from suit for the sole reason that it is based on an allegation of a particularly grave violation of a norm of international law, even a norm of ius cogens’ [para. 158, ECtHR decision]. It also held that the recognition of immunity does not ipso facto constitute a violation of the right of access to a court [para. 164]. As a result, the ECtHR concluded that ‘the grant of immunity to the UN served a legitimate purpose and was not disproportionate.’ [para. 169]

However, the decisions of the Dutch courts and the ECtHR are unsatisfactory in one respect. They all ignore an important issue: the exact status of the obligation to prevent genocide in international law. These courts simply assumed that just as the obligation not to commit genocide is a rule of jus cogens, the obligation to prevent genocide is also a norm of jus cogens. The ECtHR simply stated (at para. 157) that: “The Court has recognised the prohibition of genocide as a rule of ius cogens  . . .” However to suggest that a jus cogens norm is involved simply because the prohibition of genocide is a jus cogens norm is a big legal leap that simply cannot be assumed. Otherwise we simply have jus cogens by association! To come to that conclusion, careful analysis was required as it is a proposition that is not at all clear from international law as it presently stands. Read the rest of this entry…

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