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Home Articles posted by Manuel Ventura & Dapo Akande

Mothers of Srebrenica: The Obligation to Prevent Genocide and Jus Cogens – Implications for Humanitarian Intervention

Published on September 6, 2013        Author: 

Manuel J. Ventura is a Director of The Peace and Justice Initiative and Dapo Akande is editor of EJIL:Talk!

The June 2013 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Stichting Mothers of Srebrenica and Others v. The Netherlands is the latest phase in the attempts by the relatives of those killed in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina to hold the UN (and/or The Netherlands) responsible for the inaction of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) – made up of Dutch peacekeepers – who stood aside while Srebrenica was overrun in July 1995. The subsequent events at the Srebrenica ‘safe area’ and the deaths of between 7,000-8,000 persons are by now well known. In the underlying proceedings in the Dutch Courts, the complainants did not seek to hold the UN responsible for the commission of genocide, but rather for the failure, in the applicant’s view, of the UN’s duty to prevent genocide. The Dutch courts held that the UN had immunity from domestic suit, even in the face of violations of jus cogens norms. The ECtHR agreed with the Dutch rulings on the immunity of the UN. It followed the ICJ’s holding in Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (Germany v. Italy; Greece Intervening) that ‘[i]nternational law does not support the position that a civil claim should override immunity from suit for the sole reason that it is based on an allegation of a particularly grave violation of a norm of international law, even a norm of ius cogens’ [para. 158, ECtHR decision]. It also held that the recognition of immunity does not ipso facto constitute a violation of the right of access to a court [para. 164]. As a result, the ECtHR concluded that ‘the grant of immunity to the UN served a legitimate purpose and was not disproportionate.’ [para. 169]

However, the decisions of the Dutch courts and the ECtHR are unsatisfactory in one respect. They all ignore an important issue: the exact status of the obligation to prevent genocide in international law. These courts simply assumed that just as the obligation not to commit genocide is a rule of jus cogens, the obligation to prevent genocide is also a norm of jus cogens. The ECtHR simply stated (at para. 157) that: “The Court has recognised the prohibition of genocide as a rule of ius cogens  . . .” However to suggest that a jus cogens norm is involved simply because the prohibition of genocide is a jus cogens norm is a big legal leap that simply cannot be assumed. Otherwise we simply have jus cogens by association! To come to that conclusion, careful analysis was required as it is a proposition that is not at all clear from international law as it presently stands. Read the rest of this entry…