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Jurisdictional Immunities in the New York Southern District Court? The case of Rukoro et al. v. Federal Republic of Germany

Published on August 13, 2018        Author:  and
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In 2015, German State officials began referring to the atrocities committed by Imperial German soldiers in today’s Namibia between 1904 and 1908 as ‘what would now be called genocide’. This paradigm shift sparked considerable societal debate about Germany’s long neglected colonial past – finally, one might say. Although an official apology is still lacking, Germany and Namibia are currently addressing this ‘terrible chapter in history’ at an inter-State level. Despite this diplomatic progress, however, and much to the dismay of many descendants of victims of the German colonial era, individual compensation is not a subject of those negotiations. On 5 January 2017, various Herero and Nama representatives filed a (subsequently amended) class action complaint against Germany in the New York Southern District Court, which addresses both past and present day issues (for an overview of the case see here and here). The plaintiffs, first, request compensation for ‘the horrific genocide and unlawful taking of property’ by Germany (complaintpara 1). Secondly, the plaintiffs ask the Court to declare that their exclusion from the ongoing negotiations between Germany and Namibia violates international law (ibid. para 2).

After more than one and a half years of proceedings, things now seem to be getting serious. At a ‘pre-trial conference’ held on 31 July, both parties pleaded for the first time on the delicate question of the Court’s jurisdiction. This short contribution focuses on whether and to what extent Germany is entitled to claim immunity from jurisdiction. It then analyses at which point of the proceedings this immunity would be (or has already been) violated, and considers possible implications of the case from an immunity perspective and beyond.

Can Germany claim immunity from jurisdiction?

Deriving from the sovereign equality of States, jurisdictional immunity protects States from being subjected to the jurisdiction of courts in another State. It is widely accepted in contemporary international law that States only have an obligation to give effect to this immunity for another State’s acta jure imperii. The ICJ defined these as ‘exercises of sovereign power’ (Jurisdictional Immunities, para 60), as distinct from States’ private and commercial activities (acta jure gestionis), which are excluded from the scope of immunity.

Today’s negotiations between Germany and Namibia – the object of the plaintiffs’ second request – touch upon issues such as inter-State compensation (and other forms of redress). Such matters can only be settled by States acting in sovereign capacity, i.e. by way of acta jure imperii. The various acts of the colonial era – the objects of the plaintiffs’ first request – have to be distinguished. The genocidal crimes were committed by Imperial Germany’s armed forces in military operations. A State’s armed forces typically exercise sovereign power. The situation is less clear when it comes to the takings of property. The plaintiffs seem to argue that these were sovereign acts (complaint, para 39). Yet, the German authorities also stripped many Herero and Nama of their belongings by (grossly unfair) contracts. If viewed as private law agreements, these might constitute acta jure gestionis. From an international law perspective, a more nuanced assessment of the different forms of colonial wrongs could therefore have been a promising strand of argument for the complaint. Read the rest of this entry…

 

Venezuela’s Non-Participation Before the ICJ in the Dispute over the Essequibo Region

Published on June 29, 2018        Author: 
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On 18 June 2018, Venezuela notified the International Court of Justice that it intends not to participate in the proceedings before the Court in the case over the Essequibo region brought by Guyana (for an excellent analysis of Guyana’s application and the complex historical and procedural background on this blog see here). Venezuela’s move is reminiscent of a long series of cases before the PCIJ and then the ICJ in which the defendant State chose not to appear. At its peak in a period in the 1970/80s this phenomenon had almost become the norm rather than the exception, a situation widely seen as symptomatic of a major crisis of confidence in the Court. The Institut de Droit International noted with concern ‘that the absence of a party is such as to hinder the regular conduct of the proceedings, and may affect the good administration of justice’. This short contribution will assess whether similar concerns are warranted now that the Court will once again be confronted with this peculiar procedural situation. It will first briefly evaluate to what extent Venezuela’s announcement may be part of a re-emerging trend of non-participation. It will then consider how Venezuela’s decision will legally impact the proceedings, highlight key challenges for the conduct of the proceedings, and suggest how and to what extent the Court can address these.  

Back to the 1970s?

Since the US ceased participating in the Nicaragua case following the decision on jurisdiction more than thirty years ago, there have only been rare incidents of (temporary) non-participation in contentious proceedings before the ICJ (Bahrain was not represented when the second judgment on jurisdiction and admissibility in Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions was delivered, nor at a later meeting of the Court when time limits for submissions at the next stage were fixed; note also in the different context of advisory proceedings Israel’s refusal to take part in the Wall case). Non-participation thus seemed to have gone out of fashion – France, for example, had failed to appear in the Nuclear Tests cases in 1973/74 but chose to participate when New Zealand requested the Court to resume that case in 1995.

Recently, however, Pakistan who had submitted a counter-memorial did not appear in the oral hearings in the Marshall Islands case. Croatia only partially participated in the ad hoc arbitration with Slovenia. And Venezuela’s announcement comes only relatively shortly after China and Russia did not take part in major UNCLOS proceedings (the South China Sea and the Artic Sunrise cases). Even among these States, however, participation at present seems to remain the norm: Russia, for example, is currently participating in cases brought by Ukraine, both before the ICJ and in an UNCLOS Annex VII arbitration. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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