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Part III- This is not fine: The International Criminal Court in Trouble

Published on March 25, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s note: This is the final post in a three-part series. Parts I and II are available here and here.

In this final reflection I would like to offer some concluding remarks based on my previous two posts. Those posts do not break any new ground for those who follow the International Criminal Court closely. However, they represent my attempt to step back and examine some of the Court’s troubles more holistically. Indeed, they barely scratch the surface of various matters one could explore in such a series.

The basic fact remains that in 20 years and almost two complete prosecutorial terms, the Court that ostensibly exists to fight impunity and prosecute those most responsible for the crimes of greatest concern to the international community has managed only three convictions for core international crimes. Of these one was a guilty plea (Al Mahdi), one controversially involved the Court’s judges saving a collapsing case by recharacterizing the mode of liability after the presentation of argument and evidence had concluded and without hearing further argument on point (Katanga), and one took six years to result in a single conviction for the recruitment of child soldiers (Lubanga).

This is not a record of success. The argument I have put forward is first that there are real questions as to whether the Court’s job is possible to do on the present conditions. In my first post I argued that many of the defences made of the Court are simply articulations of the structural requirements for success which are not present. In my second post, I argued that even given those structural limitations it is not obvious that the Court as presently constituted is up to the task. The OTP appears unable to consistently mount successful and convincing cases. While the first Prosecutor must certainly take much of the blame, the second does not appear to have had much success righting the ship. Just as worrying, however, appears to be the breakdown in trust between the OTP and Chambers. Beyond the examples given in my second post, the Pre-Trial Chamber has attempted to circumscribe prosecutorial discretion or direct the course of investigations both in relation to the Cormoros and Bangladesh situations. Further, there are very worrying signs of a breakdown in collegiality among the ICC judges which is damaging both the formal coherence of court decisions and its wider legitimacy. This is before we even touch on the Court’s unsightly history of internal employment litigation and pay disputes, and now reports that the ICC mismanaged property in the Bemba case frozen to provide for any reparation orders. The allegation is that over 10 years Mr Bemba’s property was “left to devalue, dissipate or simply rot.” From the outside, the picture is one of dysfunction.

What is to be done? As foreshadowed, I think the answer has to be found in a guiding ethic of modesty and collegiality. I will address this in terms of institutional design, investigations and evidence, and judicial culture. The temptation will be to double down and push harder in the present direction of travel. This would be a mistake. The Court is facing a legitimacy crisis. To survive as an institution, the court is going to need to start making some compromises with reality.

Institutional design

In retrospect, elements of the Court’s design were from the outset overambitious or over-complicated. 

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Part II- This is not fine: The International Criminal Court in Trouble

Published on March 22, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s note: This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I is available here.

Part I of these reflections focused upon the structural constraints faced by the International Criminal Court as a whole. Within this framework, I wish to focus upon the role of individuals and officeholders in the courts success or failure within those constraints, with a focus on the office of the prosecutor and the judges of the court (Chambers). This post thus sets out to address questions of the Court’s internal workings, practices and culture. In relation to the OTP, I will focus on questions of strategy and management; in respect of chambers, questions of collegiality and assessment of evidence. Space precludes an evaluation of the Registry’s contribution to the court’s present woes beyond my earlier allusion to the well-known, long and expensive series of employment law cases brought against it which followed from a previous registrar’s restructuring exercise. Again, little here will seem especially new to close observers of the Court, the point is to pull together a worrying cluster of issues for a broader audience. Warning: long post ahead.

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP)

It is worth acknowledging both the enormous power of the role of an international prosecutor, and the very great difficulties in doing the job successfully. As Stahn notes, the Prosecutor is the engine of international criminal tribunal proceedings. He or she conducts investigations, selects defendants, brings cases to trial. In doing so, it is common for prosecutors to say that they are only following the law or evidence, but in practice they have substantial discretion in case and defendant selection. In addition, obtaining defendants and evidence requires, in practice, the cooperation of States. Thus, prosecutors’ work ‘is inherently linked to politics due to the political context of crimes, the politics behind institutional engagement and their large degree of choice.’ That said, international prosecutions are hard. Gathering evidence in conflict zones is hard. Operating in the face of government obstruction is hard. And the reality of selective justice at the international level means prosecutors will always be open to criticisms of partiality or lacking independence. It’s a challenging job. Much was going to depend on the ICC Assembly of State Party’s choice of prosecutor in 2003.

The first Prosecutor

The first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, was during his tenure an Olympian figure; though the verdict of history on his achievements looks increasingly likely to be that of Ozymandias. 

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Part I- This is not fine: The International Criminal Court in Trouble

Published on March 21, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s note: This is Part I of a three-part series.

There is now a real sense that the International Criminal Court is in trouble. The questions are: how much, why and what is to be done?

The UK pulled no punches in its statement to the 17th International Criminal Court Assembly of State Parties:

The United Kingdom strongly supports the aims of the ICC and believes there is an essential role for an international institution like the Court in delivery of justice at the international level. But as an Assembly of States Parties to the Statute, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is fine when it isn’t. The statistics are sobering. After [nearly] 20 years, and 1.5 billion Euros spent we have only three core crime convictions. As others have said, and I quote “it is undeniable that the Rome project still falls short of the expectations of the participants at that ground-breaking conference in Rome”. The time has come for States to take a fundamental look at how the Court is operating. We need to work together to address the challenges, for the future health of the Court, a Court that we care about deeply.

The UK statement, delivered by Legal Director Andrew Murdoch,* ‘welcome[d] the steps taken by the Prosecutor to investigate the media allegations surrounding the former Prosecutor that surfaced twelve months ago’ and noted that the ‘Court is in danger of spending more money on internal litigation, including litigation on salaries, than on victims’.

Some will no doubt point to ongoing ICC investigations into the actions of UK personnel in Iraq, to impugn the UK’s motives in making these points. Its criticisms, however, are undeniably grounded in fact. Things are not fine. In April it will be 16 years since the Court’s first prosecutor was sworn in. A widespread sense among the ICC’s supporters that there is some soul-searching to be done about the future direction of the Court has only been heightened in the weeks since the Gbagbo acquittal.

Let’s be clear about the paucity of concrete results. There have been eight convictions, one overturned on appeal, one arising from a guilty plea and four relating to Article 70 administration of justice offences. The four convictions for offences against the administration of justice all arise out of the Central African Republic investigation and involve sentences of 6 months to 3 years. The other convictions may be summarised as:

  • Bemba (CAR) – sentenced to 18 years, overturned on appeal; an administration of justice case continues;
  • Katanga (DRC) – sentenced to 12 years, transferred back to DRC custody with ‘sentence served’ after 8 years;
  • Lubanga (DRC) – convicted to 14 years;
  • Al-Mahdi (Mali) – proceeded on a guilty plea and was sentenced to 9 years.

This is to set aside the very considerable disquiet expressed regarding the Katanga conviction, involving the dismissal of charges against his alleged co-perpetrator and judicial recharacterization of the relevant mode of liability after the close of proceedings. There is also now the very public embarrassment of both the collapse of the Kenya situation prosecutions and now the entry of acquittals on a “no case to answer” motion by the Trial Chamber in Gbagbo. As Labuda notes, if the Gbagbo acquittal is upheld on appeal, the ICC will be in the ‘rather awkward’ position of having acquitted more alleged international criminal than it has convicted. Indeed, as Dürr points out, to have more acquittals and terminated proceedings than convictions is unique among international criminal tribunals.

There are certainly more complex, and arguably more important, metrics by which to judge the success or failure of an international criminal tribunal than the number of its convictions. Indeed, we would rightly be sceptical of the fairness of proceedings that only resulted in conviction. However, to the extent that the Court is meant to serve expressivist goals, fight impunity, or deter atrocity – it must present some credible threat to those who should fear accountability. It is often argued that the simple possibility of ICC accountability may deter atrocity and that the existence of institutions may change behaviour. As lawyers we know that behaviour changes in the ‘shadow of the court’, but that court must first cast a shadow.

In a series of reflections, I will argue that we should now be very worried about the extent to which the Court is casting much of a shadow at all. In exploring who and what is to blame for this situation, I will pursue two themes: conditions and culture. Read the rest of this entry…

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The “Command Responsibility” Controversy in Colombia: A Follow-Up

Published on March 13, 2019        Author:  and
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A key issue arising out of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas is the definition of “command responsibility” that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace —the judicial system created as part of the peace talks— will apply when it prosecutes army commanders.

In 2017, the Colombian Congress passed a constitutional amendment containing a “command responsibility” definition that is inconsistent with the one applied under international law. A previous post reviewed the background and lead-up to the approval of that legislation. This post will examine how the controversy has evolved since. The post begins by describing the submission by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of an unusual amicus brief to Colombia’s Constitutional Court about the compatibility of the definition with international law. We then summarize the Constitutional Court’s decision upholding the definition in the amendment, before considering an ongoing case involving a former army chief, where the definition is being tested.

ICC’s Prosecutor amicus brief

In September 2017, Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the ICC (which has the situation in Colombia under preliminary examination), visited the country to obtain clarifications on certain aspects of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, as well as information on the status of the relevant national proceedings. A month later, she submitted an amicus brief to the Colombian Constitutional Court. The brief was initially filed confidentially, but was leaked to the media and posted online. Read the rest of this entry…

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Private Investigators Helped Germany Arrest Two Former Syrian Secret Service Officers

Published on February 26, 2019        Author: 
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On 7 February 2019, the investigative judge of the German Federal Court of Justice issued arrest warrants against two former secret service officers from the Syrian government, since they were strongly suspected of having carried out or aided torture and crimes against humanity. On 12 February 2019, the German Federal Prosecutor – through officers of the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) – arrested the two suspects in Berlin and Zweibrücken. As a result of the creation of a French-German Joint Investigation Team, another Syrian alleged to have worked for the secret service was arrested by Parisian prosecutors. This is the first time western criminal prosecutors have arrested alleged torturers working for Bashar al-Assad.

The strong suspicion that the suspects had carried out the alleged crimes is based – to a considerable extent – on evidence that has been collected by private individuals and entities: First, the photographs taken by the “Group Caesar”, the code name of a former Syrian military photographer who brought over 50,000 photographs out of the country, 28,000 of which show detainees in Syrian prisons killed by torture, outright execution, disease, malnutrition or other ill-treatment. Second, the assistance of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which provided the testimony from six survivors of torture in Al Khatib detention center in Damascus. Third, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), who provided documentary evidence against one of the two former secret service officers. Nerma Jelacic, CIJA’s deputy director, announced on Twitter: “#CIJA is proud to have supported the #German prosecutor’s investigation and arrest of the first high-ranking Syrian regime official”.

This shows that the appeal of private investigations has now reached the level of International Criminal Justice. Of course, investigatory work done by private non-state agencies is not novel, considering that there are countless Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs) who interview witnesses and collect documents. The aim is that this material may be used in International(ised) Criminal Tribunals or before a national court trying international crimes. Private investigations are indispensable on the international level, and privately funded international human rights organisations have been crucial to hold perpetrators of international crimes accountable. Read the rest of this entry…

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‘Open for Business’: The Special Criminal Court Launches Investigations in the Central African Republic

Published on February 8, 2019        Author: 
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On 22 October 2018, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) held its inaugural session in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Several weeks later, the Special Prosecutor, Col. Toussaint Muntazini, announced his long-awaited prosecutorial strategy. Coming three years after Parliament initially requested a specialist ‘war crimes’ tribunal for CAR, these two acts mark a watershed in the country’s fight against impunity. After providing some background on the SCC, this post examines the prosecutorial strategy and the prospects of accountability in CAR.

The Legal Framework

Established by domestic legislation in June 2015, the SCC is a hybrid tribunal fully integrated into the Central African justice system. It is staffed by national and international prosecutors and judges, and relies on logistical and technical support from the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR. Funded by voluntary contributions, the SCC is functionally independent from both the United Nations and CAR government. Its five-year mandate, which officially began on 22 October 2018, is renewable.

Prosecutorial Strategy

Why did the SCC publicize its prosecutorial strategy? Other tribunals, for instance the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, never made their strategies public (to the extent such strategies existed). The SCC’s decision to ‘go public’ is more in line with the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s practice of adopting formal policies on a variety of matters. Read the rest of this entry…

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Ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court Legitimising Restrictions on Universal Criminal Jurisdiction

Published on February 6, 2019        Author: 
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A short history of universal jurisdiction in Spain

Last 20 December, the Spanish Constitutional Court (hereinafter, TC) issued a ruling rejecting an application made by more than fifty Socialist Members of Parliament to strike out a bill introduced by the Conservative Party in 2014. In practice, the aforementioned bill put an end to a law of 1985 which provided for one of the broadest universal jurisdiction regimes for criminal matters in the world. Spain had been at the centre of human rights litigation, with well-publicized cases against former presidents Pinochet and Jiang Zemin or top officials of the Israeli Government. Needless to say, such cases had caused a few diplomatic headaches to the Spanish Government, in the course of time. However, a former minister of justice had admitted that in twenty years there had actually been only one conviction in application of universal jurisdiction rules.

A first reform to restrict the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Spanish criminal courts came about in 2009 by an agreement between Socialists and Conservatives. Contrary to the original law of 1985, after 2009 the accused had to be found in Spain, the victim had to be Spanish or there had to be some other relevant connection with the forum. Subsequently, the abovementioned reform of 2014 granted jurisdiction for a larger number of crimes committed abroad but made it practically impossible to prosecute if the crime was completely unrelated to Spain. Read the rest of this entry…

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Acquittals by the International Criminal Court

Published on January 18, 2019        Author: 
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Earlier this week, a Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court acquitted Laurent Gbago, former President of Côte d’Ivoire, and his right-hand man, Charles Blé Goudé. (In what follows, I will refer only to Gbagbo). By a majority of two to one, the judges held that there was insufficient evidence to place Gbagbo on his defense. The Prosecutor has indicated that she will appeal this decision.

Critics of the ICC claim that this track record constitutes an indictment of the Court. They point, in comparison, to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). During its active life from 1995 to 2017, it indicted 161 individuals of whom 99 were sentenced, 19 acquitted and 13 referred to domestic courts.  The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, during its period of activity indicted 96 individuals of whom 62 were sentenced, 14 acquitted and 10 referred to domestic courts.  

I would suggest, however, that the comparison is not a fair one. In the case of the UN tribunals, each court was given a specific mandate that extended over a defined territory – the states that comprised the former Yugoslavia in the case of the first and Rwanda in the second. They were supported by resolutions of the Security Council that were legally binding on all members of the United Nations. They had the full and active support of the United States that brought its political and economic muscle to back that support. On the other side, the ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes perpetrated in 123 States or committed anywhere by a person who is a national of one of those 123 States. On this ground alone the differences become manifest.

That mistakes have been made by organs of the ICC cannot be doubted. However, it is always easy to criticise in hindsight. Some proceedings have taken too long. Some of the judges have been less than prompt in issuing their decisions. Criticism of, as well as praise for, the ICC has come both from civil society and from governments.

In June 2018, there was a massive outpouring of criticism at the decision of a majority of the ICC Appeals Chamber acquitting the former Vice-President of the Central African Republic, Jean-Pierre Bemba. 

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The Decentralisation of International Crimes: A shift from the central criminal apparatus at the ICC?

Published on December 27, 2018        Author: 
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In her statement to the UN Security Council on November 2018, Fatou Bensouda vowed to search ‘outside of Libya’ for accountability of global actors in the migration context. This is one of the many moves by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) in their prosecutorial trajectory towards a more holistic approach. Such an approach widens the accountability net to capture crimes and potentially responsible actors, which would otherwise fall outside the geographical scope of the ICC’s “situations”.

In this post, I argue that this new approach, which has largely passed under the radar, is both desirable and justified. In what follows, I make three propositions. First, the ICC has by far adopted, in practice, a localised approach stressing system criminality. Second, in light of the globalisation of international crimes, this orthodox approach may be obsolete by failing to reflect and assert accountability comprehensively. The proliferation of cross-border transactions and the enhanced risk of transnational harms would require no less than modernising current prosecutorial strategies to properly respond to the changing faces of international crimes. The last proposition suggests that this new approach is justified and imminent out of practicality to fulfil the Court’s mandate.

The Orthodox Approach

Since the first case in Lubanga, it has been the customary practice of the ICC to localise liabilities. This means the Court would ordinarily zoom in on a particular (non-)State structural apparatus of power, and build a case theory upon it. The natural task of the Prosecution would be to identify and re-construct in abstracto the hierarchical structure that sustained the commission of crimes, and to translate it into respective responsibilities of criminal participants in concreto. Terms such as ‘organised apparatus’ and ‘hierarchical criminal network’ are common languages replete in the work of the Prosecution and Chambers. Read the rest of this entry…

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Response: Strengthening Justice for Victims Through Complementarity

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Joint Symposium with Justice in Conflict on Human Rights Watch’s Report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice 

Many thanks to the editors and the contributors for making this online symposium possible. Our primary goal with Pressure Point was to identify whether and how the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC could become more effective in pursuing its policy goal of encouraging national prosecutions through engagement at the preliminary examination stage.

But we also hoped that Pressure Point could play a role in bringing broader awareness about this dimension of the prosecutor’s work, and to stimulate others to consider how they might be able to contribute to efforts to spur national prosecutions as part of expanding the reach of justice. In this response, we address some key areas of agreement among the contributors while also addressing some differences in perspective or conclusions.

As we make clear in the report and as Emeric also emphasizes, pursuing national prosecutions is only a secondary goal of preliminary examinations, which primarily are focused on determining whether the ICC should exercise jurisdiction. When it comes to how the prosecutor should approach those determinations, it is clear there are a number of important considerations that go far beyond our report’s focus on positive complementarity. Carsten Stahn’s contribution here impressively covers that vast terrain, and brings in additional voices from the recently published Quality Control in Preliminary Examinations to set out a number of areas where further consideration is helpful. Read the rest of this entry…

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