In response to my recent post on whether the ICC can prosecute for use of chemical weapons in Syria, my friend Kevin Jon Heller raises an important issue of treaty interpretation over at Opinio Juris. His comments to my previous post set out the issue quite clearly: should the ordinary meaning of a treaty text trump the intention of the parties with regard to that treaty? Also Dov Jacobs, in a typically excellent post at Spreading the Jam, raises the point about whether the VCLT applies to the ICC Statute at all.
My answer to Kevin’s question is yes! Ordinary meaning of a treaty text should trump the supposed intention of the parties to the treaty. This is what the VCLT says but I answer that question in affirmative because I also think the VCLT was right to say so. I agree with Dov’s point but only to a point. I do not think the VCLT rules on treaty interpretation should apply in their entirety to the ICC Statute but that does not mean they do not apply at all. I discussed these points as comments to my earlier post but thought it would be useful to make my responses a separate post.
The Usefulness/Uselessness of Drafting History and Intention of the Parties
The reason to prefer ordinary meaning to the supposed intention of the parties, particularly in a multilateral treaty, is because the intention of the parties can be and is often difficult to glean apart from the actual words used. In other words, one should only very rarely conclude that ordinary meaning and clear words do not reflect the intention of the parties One might say, “but we can glean the intention from drafting history and if that differs from the words we should use that”. The problem is that the drafting history is often fragmentary and incomplete, in the case of multilateral treaties. Some (usually very few) states will say something on the record about a particular text and the majority will not. Then the temptation is to draw inferences from the way in which the negotiations proceeded (what was changed, what was left out, when the changes were made, in what order etc). But all of that will usually be assumptions about what all the parties intended. They may be logical assumptions but are still assumptions.
Different States may have different reasons for making particular changes, inserting particular words etc. Indeed members of the delegations of the same State may have different thoughts with regard to particular texts. Apart from the point made above, a number of personal experiences regarding the usefulness of drafting history also lead me to the conclusion that it is often unreliable. In writing a piece some years ago about the ICC, I sent the piece to two people who were members of a particular State’s delegation at Rome in 1998. This is a State that was intimately involved in the negotiations and that takes these things seriously. The two members of the same State’s delegations gave me different responses about what was intended with respect to particular provisions of the Rome Statute! Read the rest of this entry…