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Home Archive for category "State Immunity"

Is there a place for sovereign immunity in the fight against terrorism? The US Supreme Court says ‘no’ in Bank Markazi v. Peterson

Published on May 19, 2016        Author: 

The US Supreme Court’s judgment of 20 April 2016 in the case of Bank Markazi, aka The Central Bank of Iran, Petitioner v. Deborah Peterson, et al. highlights the increasingly isolated nature of US practice on sovereign immunity. As well as addressing issues of constitutional law, the judgment is also significant from an international law perspective; the highest jurisdiction of the US took a dangerous step toward the effective application of its terrorism exception to sovereign immunity.

The terrorism exception was introduced to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) by an amendment made in 1996, and then further revised in 2008.  28 U.S.C. §1605A reads:

A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States or of the States in any case […] in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act if such act or provision of material support or resources is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency.

The court can hear a case under this provision provided the foreign State has been designated as a State sponsoring terrorism by the Department of State and the claimant or the victim was at the time of the act a US national. This law aims at providing justice for victims through massive civil liability judgments, punishing foreign States committing or sponsoring terrorism, and discouraging them from doing so in the future.

In this post I focus not on the content of the judgment, but rather on the impact of US practice, which has recently seen all assets of the Iranian Central Bank located in the US subject to execution, on international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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An International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the ICC Head of State Immunity Issue

Published on March 31, 2016        Author: 

Earlier this week, I wrote about the recent decision of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal holding that the South African government had violated its obligations in failing to arrest Sudanese President Bashir when he attended the African Union Summit in South Africa last June. That decision is just the latest in the ongong saga about whether serving heads of States, particularly heads of states not party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), have immunity when they are wanted by the ICC. The issue has been a particularly toxic one in the relations between the African Union (AU) and the ICC. The AU continues to insist that Bashir and all serving heads of states are immune from arrest and prosecution and Bashir has now travelled to numerous African (and other states) including a number of states that are party to the ICC Statute (see the Bashir Watch website – and also here – for information on the states that Bashir has travelled to, as well as those which have denied him access). The AU Assembly (of heads of states and governments) has made a number of proposals in an attempt to put an end to the prosecution of Bashir, including a proposal for deferral of the case under Article 16 of the Rome Statute ( see Assembly/AU/Dec.547(XXIV) (June 2015)). It has also encouraged African states to put forward amendments to the Rome Statute (see Ext/Assembly/AU/Dec.1(Oct.2013). Following that suggestion, Kenya proposed an amendment to Article 27 of the Rome Statute which would provide for immunity of heads of states and their deputies (see p. 16 of this report of the ICC Assembly of States Parties Working Group on Amendments). I am sure that everyone knows that the chances of success on such an amendment is precisely zero. For the amendment to come into force, seven-eights of the parties to the ICC Statute would have to ratify it (under Art. 121(4) of the Statute) and it is inconceivable that this will happen.

However, the AU has made one suggestion which I think ought to be taken up. This is the proposal (see p. 9-10 of this document) that the International Court of Justice be asked to render an advisory opinion on the immunity of heads of states or other senior officials of states not party to the ICC (for earlier discussion of this proposal see my posts here and here). Despite the fact that the ICC has ruled on the question of Bashir’s immunity on several occasions (including in cases regarding non-cooperation by Malawi and Chad, DRC and South Africa), there are, in my view, good reasons to try to have the ICJ address the issue. Some of those reasons are legal and others political. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Bashir Case: Has the South African Supreme Court Abolished Immunity for all Heads of States?

Published on March 29, 2016        Author: 

Earlier this month, the South African Supreme Court of Appeal decided unanimously (see the judgment here) that the South African government had breached its obligations under the South African domestic statute implementing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and under the Rome Statute, by failing to arrest and detain for surrender to the ICC Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Bashir visited South African in June 2015 to attend the African Union summit held there. As will be explained below, although the decision was ultimately based on domestic law, it is potentially very far reaching in the effect that it will have in South Africa and possibly internationally. In summary, the Court held that under the South African Implementation of the Rome Statute of the ICC Act 2002, any head of State subject to an ICC arrest warrant may be arrested in South Africa and surrendered to the ICC. However, the Court also held that under the same Act international law immunities, including the immunity of heads of states, do not apply under South African law when a person is sought for domestic prosecution in South Africa for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This aspect of the decision is particularly remarkable given that the same South African Act provides for universal jurisdiction over those crimes, and the South African Constitutional Court held in 2014 that the South African Police Service may commence an investigation of these crimes even if the person is not present on South African territory. Although the aspect of the Bashir decision relating to domestic prosecution in South Africa, is in my view obiter and not part of the ratio decidendi of the decision, if it stands, it means that South Africa would be a very rare example of a State that claims the authority to prosecute serving heads of state for international crimes.

The lead judgment of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal was given by Wallis JA, with whom two judges concurred. A further two judges concurred in the result but agreed with the lead judgment only in in so far as it was based on South African ICC Implementation Act. Read the rest of this entry…

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New German Constitutional Court Decision on “Treaty Override”: Triepelianism Continued

Published on February 29, 2016        Author: 

By Court order of decision of 15 December 2015 (2BvL 1/12), published only recently, the German Constitutional Court (second Senate) has confirmed the practice of treaty override in tax law. The euphemism “treaty override” means that the German legislator adopts a law which violates a prior international treaty (often a treaty on double taxation). The Federal Tribunal on Finances (Bundesfinanzhof) had doubts about the constitutionality of this practice. It was convinced that a recent amendment of the Income Tax Act which is incompatible with a German-Turkish dual taxation treaty of 1985 is unconstitutional, exactly because it violates the treaty.

If in a pending judicial proceeding, a German court is convinced that a legal provision, which it needs to apply to resolve the case under scrutiny, is unconstitutional, that court must stay the proceeding and pose a reference question on the law’s constitutionality to the German Constitutional Court (Art. 100(1) German Basic Law). Such a reference procedure guarantees that the Constitutional Court retains the monopoly for declaring a law unconstitutional, and is thus a hallmark of the concentrated system of constitutional control in Germany.

Translation into constitutional questions
The judicial proceeding under Art. 100(1) Basic Law is available only for questions of constitutionality, not for questions of compatibility with international law. This worked, because the courts involved in fact “translated” the question of the relationship between international law and domestic law into a constitutional law question of the separation of powers and of constitutional principles: rule of law versus democracy.

The Federal Tribunal on Finances deemed the treaty override unconstitutional for violation of the rule of law and of the German constitutional principle of “friendliness towards international law” (“Völkerrechtsfreundlichkeit”).

The Constitutional Court did not follow this view. It opined that the constitutional principle of democracy (which includes the principle of discontinuity of parliament following elections) demands that the German Parliament is free to change its mind and to make or amend a law even if this violates an international treaty which had been ratified by a previous Parliament (Order of 15 Dec. 2015, paras 53-54). Read the rest of this entry…

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The Dust Has Not Yet Settled: The Italian Constitutional Court Disagrees with the International Court of Justice, Sort of

Published on November 12, 2014        Author: 

As Riccardo Pavone surmised last March, the ICJ judgment in Jurisdictional Immunities (here) has not been the last word in the matter of reparations for the forced labour of Italian prisoners of war in Germany. As reported by Christian Tams (here), the Italian Constitutional Court (here) has found the provisions adopted by Italy to implement the ICJ’s judgment contrary to the Italian Constitution, more precisely to the guarantee of access to a court. Those provisions had been meant to oblige Italian courts to follow the judgment of the ICJ, which required those courts to extend jurisdictional immunity to a foreign State (ie Germany) also for actions which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity violating inviolable human rights.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Domesticating the Law of Immunity: The Supreme Court of Canada in Kazemi v Iran

Published on November 7, 2014        Author: 

International lawyers typically think that when a case deals with a matter of international law, once you know the position under international law, then this will give you the answer. Unfortunately, before domestic courts, that is not always the case. Late last month, the Canadian Supreme Court issued its judgment in Kazemi Estate v. Islamic Republic of Iran [2014] SCC 62 (the Quebec Superior Court Judgment was discussed on the blog here). The case, following on the Ontario Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment in Bouzari, serves as a stark reminder that the application of international legal principles in domestic proceedings will frequently be governed or mediated by domestic legislation, which often reflects domestic priorities in addition to international principles. The role that international law should play in such cases, as either a source or a means of interpretation, may be contested. The Kazemi v Iran Judgment is the latest instalment in a series of important domestic court decisions on the law of State immunity.

Background

Ms. Zahra Kazemi was a Canadian citizen and freelance photographer and journalist who died in custody in Iran in 2003, following her detention, torture and sexual assault in prison The authorities refused to return her body to Canada and buried her in Iran. Although a domestic investigation reported links between the Iranian authorities and her torture and death, only one person was charged and he was acquitted after a trial which lacked transparency.

Seeking justice for his mother’s death, Ms. Kazemi’s son, Mr. Stephan Hashemi, sued the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei (Iran’s Head of State), Mr. Mortazavi (Chief Public Prosecutor of Tehran), and Mr. Bakhshi (former Deputy Chief of Intelligence at the prison where Ms. Kazemi was detained), claiming damages for his mother’s suffering and death, and for the emotional and psychological harm that this caused him. Predictably, the defendants sought to dismiss the motion based on claims of state immunity, which is implemented in Canada by the State Immunity Act (SIA). This challenge ultimately reached the Supreme Court of Canada, Read the rest of this entry…

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English Court of Appeal rejects De Facto Immunity for UK officials & Act of State Doctrine in Torture Claims

Published on November 3, 2014        Author: 

Following a number of high profile but ultimately failed inquiries into the UK’s ‘complicity’ in US extraordinary rendition, some further light may be shed on the matter by the UK courts. Such is the significance of the judgment given last week by the English Court of Appeal in Belhaj & Anor v Jack Straw & Ors [2014] EWCA Civ 1394, which reversed the decision of Simon J to strike out claims brought by Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar against a number of UK officials for their alleged involvement in their unlawful abduction, detention and renditions. The claimants alleged that they were unlawfully detained and mistreated in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Libya, and on board a US registered aircraft, by agents of those states. Documents uncovered after the fall of Gaddafi allegedly show the complicity of UK officials in the kidnap of Belhaj and his then pregnant wife, Boudchar, and their rendition back to Libya. In a thorough and careful judgment, the Court of Appeal (Lord Dyson MR, Lloyd Jones and Sharp LLJ) held that the claims are not barred by state immunity and, while they did engage the act of state doctrine, the claims fell within the public policy limitation applicable in cases of violation of international law and fundamental rights.

Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court has been granted only in relation to the act of state doctrine. Whatever the Supreme Court decides to do, this judgment marks another bold stand for the rule of law in the context of events arising from the so-called global war on terror, as well as providing further clarification on the scope of both doctrines.

State immunity: indirect impleader

Seemingly emboldened by the recent decision of the European Court of Justice in Jones v the United Kingdom, the Respondents sought to argue that state immunity may be invoked where, as in the present case, the claims necessarily require findings of illegality in respect of the acts of foreign officials for which they could claim immunity if they had been sued directly. It was argued that the claims indirectly implead the states concerned because they affect their interests and that, accordingly, state immunity applies to bar the claims.

Interestingly, the Respondents sought to derive support for this submission from the reference to both “rights” and “interests” in Article 6(2)(b) of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of State and their Property, which they argued has the effect that a state is indirectly impleaded where its interests are affected in a broad sense. In its judgment, the Court cited academic commentary in support of the contention that the final words of Article 6(2)(b) should be given a limited reading, such that “interests” of states is confined to legal interests as opposed to interests in some more general sense Read the rest of this entry…

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Let the Games Continue: Immunity for War Crimes before the Italian Constitutional Court

Published on October 24, 2014        Author: 

The issue is important, no doubt – to what extent do rules of immunity apply in respect of grave violations of international law? Over the past two decades, it has been addressed by lawmakers, the ILC, international and national courts in cases like Al Adsani, Jones, Bouzari and others – and of course in hundreds of articles, notes and books. In fact, few other questions have prompted as much intense debate in the literature. As the number of plausible arguments and approaches is finite (jus cogens, implied waiver, etc.), there was bound to be duplication and repetition. (Was I the only one gradually tiring of the debate?)

In any event, the ICJ’s judgment in Jurisdictional Immunities of early 2012 seemed to settle matters: immunity could be invoked in respect of war crimes, said the Court; jus cogens was not at issue; immunity had to be assessed as a preliminary matter and irrespective of the gravity of the allegations; grave violations could still be acts iure imperii; the territorial tort exception did not apply etc. In terms of international legal process, this seemed to show the Court at its strongest, acting as supreme arbiter in long-standing debates about the proper understanding of the law, and by virtue of its authority clarifying the state of international law.  ‘At last we have certainty’ wrote Andrea Bianchi on EJIL:Talk! . And in 2013, Italy passed legislation implementing the ICJ judgment.

Two and a half years on, it’s clear that the matter remains a live one. The ECHR’s judgment in Jones seemed to accept the authority of the ICJ’s decision, but raised questions about the scope of personal immunities. (See Philippa Webb’s post).  And in the past few weeks, things have accelerated. Two weeks ago, the High Court of England and Wales decided that a Bahraini prince is not immune from prosecution for torture allegations.

But that, it seems, was no more than the prologue: Because on Wednesday, the Italian Constitutional Court seems to have gone much further. It has quashed the Italian legislation implementing the 2012 judgment, which in its view violates constitutional provisions. The ICJ’s decision is duly addressed, but not followed. As my Italian is rudimentary (and as I have yet to find a translation of the decision), I will not even begin to discuss the merits and arguments set forward. All I want to do at this stage is draw readers’ attention to it. And suggest we all prepare for yet another round of debates about how to strike the balance between human rights and immunity. ‘Certainty at last?’ You wish.

UPDATE: Here is an English summary of the judgment, provided by Francesco Messineo, Honorary Research Fellow at Kent Law School.

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Sovereign Debt Litigation Against Argentina: An Aberration or A New Routine?

Published on September 4, 2014        Author: 

hayk

Hayk Kupelyants is a PhD candidate at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.

Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis led to one of the most extensive sovereign debt restructurings in history. In hindsight, it was also one of the harshest, in terms of Argentina’s negotiating stance and the losses incurred by bondholders. Ninety-three percent of holders of Argentine sovereign bonds eventually accepted the terms of two restructurings in 2005 and 2010, but seven percent of bondholders, holding an approximate US $4 billion of Argentine sovereign bonds “held out,” or declined to accept restructured bonds. The plaintiffs in the litigation discussed in this post hold US $1.7 billion, which they seek to recover through litigation in US courts.

NML Capital and other hedge funds purchased the Argentine bonds on the ‘secondary market’, i.e. on the market of previously issued financial instruments, from the original owners of bonds. The business model of hedge funds specialising in distressed debt is to purchase sovereign debt or judgments against a sovereign on the secondary market at a deeply reduced price to their par and, by consistently holding out from the renegotiation process and aggressively litigating, recover the full value of the bonds. The Argentine bonds purchased by the hedge funds contained choice of forum clauses in favour of New York courts, choice of law clauses in favour of New York law and broad waivers of sovereign immunity. The combination of these clauses should havemade the effort of recovering the debt much less painful. However, the hedge funds’ continuous efforts  to enforce US judgments in their favour around the world have so far been modestly successful at best.

In the view of many, the balance of powers may change as a result of the recent US litigation. The US court litigation discussed in this blog post has been called ‘the trial of the century’ or the litigation that will change the landscape of sovereign debt restructurings. It has been remarkable, as the hedge funds have come close to being repaid under the bonds purchased on the secondary market. In an unprecendented turn of the litigation, the holdout creditors have obtained third-party injunctions from US courts that have driven a sovereign state to default. Read the rest of this entry…

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