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Symposium on the Genocide Convention: Is the Duty to Prevent Genocide an Obligation of Result or an Obligation of Conduct according to the ICJ?

Published on May 16, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s note: This is the final post in our blog symposium arising out of the Nottingham International Law and Security Centre conference to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention. Read the other posts in this symposium here and here.

This post questions the findings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the 2007 Bosnia v. Serbia case, according to which the duty to prevent a genocide is an obligation of conduct that can be assessed only after the occurrence of a genocide. The post first briefly explores the distinction between obligations of conduct and obligations of result on the basis of the International Law Commission (ILC)’s works and judicial practice. The post moves on to emphasise some inconsistencies in the ICJ’s reasoning in relation to the occurrence of a genocide as a prerequisite for the violation of the duty to prevent genocide. Finally, the post advances some possible explanations of the role of the event ‘genocide’ in relation to the duty to prevent genocide.

The 2007 ICJ’s Decision

In the 2007 Bosnia v. Serbia case, the Court for the first time declared that an autonomous obligation of diligent conduct to prevent genocide exists under Article I of the 1948 Genocide Convention (see my reflections here). According to the Court:

It is clear that the obligation in question is one of conduct and not one of result, in the sense that a State cannot be under an obligation to succeed, whatever the circumstances, in preventing the commission of genocide: the obligation of States parties is rather to employ all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible. A State does not incur responsibility simply because the desired result is not achieved; responsibility is however incurred if the State manifestly failed to take all measures to prevent genocide which were within its power, and which might have contributed to preventing the genocide. In this area the notion of “due diligence”, which calls for an assessment in concreto, is of critical importance. (para 430, emphasis added)

The Court went on to affirm that a breach of the duty to prevent genocide can be assessed only after a genocide has occurred. The Court took the view that:

a State can be held responsible for breaching the obligation to prevent genocide only if genocide was actually committed. It is at the time when commission of the prohibited act (genocide or any of the other acts listed in Article III of the Convention) begins that the breach of an obligation of prevention occurs. […] If neither genocide nor any of the other acts listed in Article III of the Convention are ultimately carried out, then a State that omitted to act when it could have done so cannot be held responsible a posteriori, since the event did not happen. (para 431, emphasis added)

However, the view that a genocide must occur before a State’s compliance with the duty to prevent genocide can be assessed ignores the fact that this duty is a due diligence obligation of conduct. This conclusion is supported by the analysis of the evolution of the notion of obligations of conduct. Read the rest of this entry…