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Belgium v. Senegal: Did the Court End the Dispute between the Parties?

Published on July 25, 2012        Author: 

Inna Uchkunova, New Bulgarian University (LLM) is a Member of the International Moot Court Competition Association.

The Judgment in the case concerning Questions Relating to the Obligation to Prosecute or Extradite (Belgium v. Senegal) is the first in the history of the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) in which it found that a State had standing based on obligations erga omnes partes. Before that, the PCIJ had only once to pronounce on this question in the 1928 Wimbledon case. In para. 68 of its judgment the Court stated, inter alia, that:

The States parties to the Convention have a common interest to ensure, in view of their shared values, that acts of torture are prevented and that, if they occur, their authors do not enjoy impunity. The obligations of a State party to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the facts and to submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution are triggered by the presence of the alleged offender in its territory, regardless of the nationality of the offender or the victims, or of the place where the alleged offences occurred. All the other States parties have a common interest in compliance with these obligations by the State in whose territory the alleged offender is present. That common interest implies that the obligations in question are owed by any State party to all the other States parties to the Convention. All the States parties “have a legal interest” in the protection of the rights involved (Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company, Limited, Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1970, p. 32, para. 33). These obligations may be defined as “obligations erga omnes partes” in the sense that each State party has an interest in compliance with them in any given case.

The Court’s reference in the judgment to the Barcelona Traction case may create confusion as to the difference between obligations erga omnes partes (Article 48(1)(a) of the ILC Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA)) “owed to a group” of States and erga omnes obligations (per se) which are “owed to the international community as a whole” (Article 48(1)(b)).  The ARSIWA Commentary clarifies that the name “owed to the international community as a whole” was preferred over erga omnes in order to avoid confusion “with obligations owed to all the parties to a treaty.” The better view seems, therefore, to be that obligations erga omnes partes exist in the case of treaties such as the CAT or the Genocide convention, while obligations erga omnes form part of customary law.

Article 48 ARSIWA represents progressive development, but the Court in East Timor did not rule out standing deriving from obligations erga omnes either. It merely stated that “the erga omnes character of a norm and the rule of consent to jurisdiction are two different things.” (para. 29) In that case the Court lacked jurisdiction based on the Monetary Gold principle. It remains to be seen whether erga omnes skeptics are to be proven right or wrong.

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