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Not just another ‘crisis’: Could the blocking of the Afghanistan investigation spell the end of the ICC? (Part II)

Published on April 20, 2019        Author: 

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Part II of this post addresses the larger implications of the PTC’s decision. For part I discussing its treatment of the ‘interests of justice’, see here .

Justice and pragmatism

In my previous post, I argued that, as a result of the Pre-Trial Chamber’s incorrect interpretation of the ‘interests of justice’ standard, extra-legal considerations controlled the outcome of its determination. This part shows why this is problematic in terms of the legitimacy of the Court and of the broader project it symbolizes. 

But first, is there no silver lining and nothing to defend in the PTC’s decision to deny authorization of the investigation in Afghanistan? As noted elsewhere, the ‘crises’ in international criminal justice tend to consolidate members of the epistemic and support communities around the institutions while also bringing the existing ideological and other fault lines into sharper relief. There is no uniform consensus on the PTC decision either.

Some (mostly US-based) commentators suggest that the PTC’s decision on the Afghanistan probe was overdetermined, understandable, and thus, in a way, justifiable. After all, it was a well-known fact—even prior to the unequivocal statements by John Bolton in September 2018 and Mike Pompeo in March 2019—that the US would not tolerate the prospect of the ICC Prosecutor investigating the conduct of its armed forces and CIA personnel. Most recently, the US government’s hostility towards the Court took the form of overt pressure and visa restrictions meant to dissuade the ICC staff from (and punish it for) pursuing that course of action. The judges’ blocking the investigation is not merely caving to pressure, the argument goes, but it is ‘caving to reality’: a prudent step towards de-escalation and much-needed institutional adjustment (see Bosco and Buchwald). This is what the triumph of pragmatism over the idealistic and over-reaching attempts to bring accountability for the alleged crimes in Afghanistan looks like. It is warranted by the need for the Court to better prioritize its work, focus on the more tangible goals, and direct its scarce resources to situations ‘where there exists some meaningful prospect of success’ (Whiting). This makes sense, particularly considering the Court’s poor track record in terms of securing convictions over the past years in situations seemingly less complex than that of Afghanistan.

It may well be that the Afghanistan investigation would not have led to prosecutorial success or even any cases at all. There is also no doubt that the opening of the investigation would have led to further escalation with the US and seriously complicated the situation for the Court and for its employees. It is also highly likely that the Prosecutor would continue facing serious difficulties obtaining cooperation of the relevant actors in the situation – the factor of some pertinence to the interests of justice. That said, this remains an assumption – and a questionable one at that when it comes to the investigation of the Taliban crimes.

The realist arguments are not patently misconceived or groundless (or at least, not all of them). The problem is that, even assuming arguendo that those concerns may be considered as validly falling within the ‘interests of justice’ (which they arguably may not), they are still hard to accept from a normative and legal policy angles. Importantly, as already noted in the debates, the non-authorization of the Afghanistan investigation effectively rewards non-cooperation and political pressure by states.Furthermore, while it might be more appropriate for those considerations to inform the discretionary decisions of the Prosecutor, it is disconcerting to see their trickling into the key paragraphs of the PTC Decision (paras 91-95). As the more diplomatic Alex Whiting put it, ‘[t]he ICC judges grappled with these realities more openly than we’re often accustomed’.

The implications of this are consequential and problematic. 

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Not just another ‘crisis’: Could the blocking of the Afghanistan investigation spell the end of the ICC? (Part I)

Published on April 19, 2019        Author: 

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This is a two-part post on the PTC’s Afghanistan non-investigation decision. Part I discusses the PTC’s analysis of the interests of justice requirement. Part II will focus on the decision’s broader implications.  

Judicial meltdown

The Decision of Pre-Trial Chamber II of 12 April 2019 to turn down the Prosecutor’s 20 November 2017 Request for authorization to commence an investigation in Afghanistan came as a shock to many observers. It is the anti-climax of more than a decade-long preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor and one-and-a-half years of judicial deliberations. Although it was always within the range of possibilities that the PTC would decline, it was the least expected outcome. In her Request, the Prosecutor had shown—and the Chamber agreed—that there existed reasonable grounds to believe that crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction had been committed in the situation since 1 May 2003 and the potential cases would have been admissible before the Court. The judges differed from the Prosecutor in one decisive respect on which the rejection essentially—and problematically—rests: the opening of the investigation would not have satisfied Article 53.1.c of the Statute, i.e. there were substantial reasons to believe that the investigation would not serve the “interests of justice”.

It is far from clear whether the Prosecutor will be able or indeed willing to appeal the PTC Decision (my preliminary answer is no on both points). Moreover, Article 15.4 authorizes the Prosecutor to file a new request ‘based on new facts or evidence regarding the same situation’. While this could be the way to resuscitate the procedure, it is uncertain whether the OTP would consider using it – or whether ‘new’ facts or evidence could show a change in relevant circumstances (see para. 94) and reverse the PTC’s ‘interests of justice’ assessment. The other avenue discussed on Twitter would be for one or more of the States Parties to refer the situation in Afghanistan to the Prosecutor, thus enabling her to circumvent the authorization obstacle. The problem would be to find such a State Party, that would be prepared to take on the wrath of the US. Palestine and Venezuela come to mind but the discussion whether hinging this investigation on those states’ referral is optimal or desirable is rather left for another day. As matters stand, it is more likely than not that the PTC’s decision has effectively sealed the fate of situation in Afghanistan before the ICC.

‘Crisis’ has been the buzzword courtesy the ICC for some time now. But this is not your average ‘crisis’. Many of the flaws in the PTC’s decision have been helpfully dissected by Heller, Jacobs, Labuda, Rona, de Vos and other commentators. However, the ruling is not just unnerving on multiple counts of form and substance. A thinly-guised surrender to power politics, it is nothing short of a judicial meltdown. Its significance and implications for the institution and international criminal justice more generally are profound, fitting neatly in the patterns decried in the ‘radical critiques’ of international criminal law.

This (first) part of the post shows how the PTC’s treatment of the ‘interests of justice’ requirement went astray, bringing legally irrelevant desiderata within the judicial determination. Part II of the post offers a few unconsoling thoughts on the impact of the Afghanistan decision on the ICC’s credibility and what it may bode for the future of international criminal justice.   Read the rest of this entry…