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The Duty to Investigate Civilian Deaths in Armed Conflict: Looking Beyond Criminal Investigations

Published on October 22, 2018        Author: 
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Writing in the Times last Friday, General David Petraeus, former commander of US Central Command, added his voice to the familiar refrain that ‘European human rights law’ has given rise to the ‘judicial pursuit of British soldiers and veterans’. Petraeus may be correct in stating that the British emphasis on criminal investigations would never obtain in the US, but looking at some of the legal issues behind his claims undercuts his assumption that ‘restoring the primacy of the law of armed conflict’ would remove scrutiny over the actions of military personnel on the battlefield.

A year after the winding up of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), the controversies over accountability for the UK’s military action in Iraq certainly show few signs of going away. Sections of the press continue to mount a vociferous campaign against the residual work of the Iraq Fatality Investigations (IFI), while calls for investigations into alleged civilian fatalities from more recent UK military action over Mosul are growing.

I reflected on this experience in the course of completing a chapter on international legal obligations to investigate civilian deaths for a new book just published, The Grey Zone: Civilian protection between human rights and the laws of war. The many years of investigations in the UK have arguably resulted in a failure either to deal effectively with outstanding allegations or to deliver justice to many Iraqi victims. This perception may of course be influenced by continuing political disagreement over international military action in Iraq, but it also stems from the particular approach the UK has taken to investigating violations, including the heavy reliance on criminal law. In the current generation of devastating air campaigns, what lessons can be learnt?

UK practice

Beside the need to address public concern about the conduct of military action in Iraq, UK practice on investigations has been driven largely by duties under the International Criminal Court Act 2001 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

The UK’s approach was established early in Iraq (and later applied to UK operations in Afghanistan), with all incidents involving civilian casualties being referred for investigation to the Service Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. Comparing US military investigations with those of other states in Naval Law Review in 2015, Commander Sylvaine Wong of the US Navy JAGC noted that the UK had, ‘as a matter of domestic policy, taken the most dramatic steps to rely solely on criminal law enforcement investigations for incidences of civilian casualties.’ Read the rest of this entry…

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The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber’s Reading of “or” in the Myanmar Jurisdiction Ruling: On the Relevance of Linguistics to Interpretation

Published on October 2, 2018        Author:  and
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Linguistics continues to be a blind spot for international lawyers. Despite the self-perception that lawyers work predominantly with language, an in-depth inquiry into the actual science dealing with the phenomenon of language remains, to a large extent, a desideratum. Linguistics can, however, be very helpful in understanding the intended meaning of a word or phrase, as we will try to argue in this post. A good example of its usefulness and significance is provided in the recent decision of the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber on the Prosecutor’s request for a ruling on whether the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of members of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In paras 52 ff., the Chamber had to interpret Article 7(1)(d) of the Rome Statute to establish whether the Article embodies either a single or two separate crimes, in light of the use of the word “or”. As will be be shown, the resulting interpretation of the word “or” demonstrates the usefulness of linguistic knowledge from which international law could draw in the future.

We hope that we are not seen as using a case featuring harrowing events as a mere façade for legal-intellectual exchanges. We suggest that a narrow technical approach is justified, particularly, in such important cases where so much depends on interpretation (e.g., the exact contours of jurisdiction of an international court).

Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics

International lawyers’ relationship with linguistics has been somewhat selective. In recent writing, some have used elements of corpus linguistics or discourse analysis to gain insights into international law. However, other modern aspects of studying meaning as a phenomenon in language seem to continuously escape international lawyers’ attention. For example, there is a certain tendency to refer to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953) and his argument that words are defined by how they are used without putting his work in context (see e.g. recently Klabbers, International Law, Cambridge University Press 2017, p. 56). The progress that linguistics has made in the decades following the 1950s, in particular with regard to the semantics-pragmatics divide, is left aside as a consequence. Read the rest of this entry…

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An Independent Mechanism for Myanmar: A Turning Point in the Pursuit of Accountability for International Crimes

Published on October 1, 2018        Author: 
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Last week, the Human Rights Council voted to establish an “independent mechanism” to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Myanmar.

To those following international efforts to bring perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide to justice, this watershed moment could herald a paradigm shift in how atrocities in situations such a Syria, Myanmar and Yemen are addressed.

The need for such a mechanism, at its core, stems from the need to bolster investigations and trials into the most serious crimes – both at the national and international levels.

Much has been written about the need to leverage the impact of the International Criminal Court in situations where it has jurisdiction, including a recent Human Rights Watch report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice – Lessons from Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, and the United Kingdom, which takes a stab at addressing this question.

The report proposes a range of measures by international partners of the International Criminal Court, international organizations, and civil society groups to assist national authorities to carry out effective prosecutions of international crimes, such as legislative assistance, capacity building, advocacy and political dialogue to counter obstruction.

These measures, however, overlook the more technical and evidentiary challenges that forestall national proceedings into war crimes and crimes against humanity. Most national judiciaries either lack the full capacity to conduct war crime trials in accordance with universally adopted standards, are too strapped for resources to comb through voluminous materials from human rights NGOs or victim groups regarding widespread atrocities, or lack the legal expertise to qualify criminal conduct as international crimes.

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The ‘Security Council Route’ to the Derogation from Personal Head of State Immunity in the Al-Bashir Case: How Explicit must Security Council Resolutions be?

Published on September 19, 2018        Author: 
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Last week, the Appeals Court of the International Criminal Court (ICC, the Court) held hearings in relation to Jordan’s Appeal from a decision of Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) II holding that it has failed to cooperate with the Court in the arrest and surrender of Sudan’s President, Omar Al-Bashir. As is well known, Al-Bashir is presently subject to an ICC Arrest Warrant for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, following the referral of the situation by the Security Council (SC) to the Court. He has made a series official visits to Jordan and other states parties to the ICC Statute (the Rome Statute). However, none of those states has dared to arrest him to date. Their principal argument is that Al-Bashir enjoys personal immunities from foreign domestic jurisdiction under treaties and customary international law, that these are not covered by the removal of immunity in Art. 27(2) of the Rome Statute, and are thereby safeguarded by Art. 98 of the Statute.

The hearings, together with the Appeals Chamber’s decisions leading to them, represent a unique moment in the history of international criminal law for two main reasons. First, this is the first time in which the ICC has invited, accepted and heard submissions from leading international law scholars as amici curiae, as well as engaged in direct (and sometimes heated!) oral discussions with them. Secondly, some of the legal and policy issues discussed in the hearings are of fundamental importance to international criminal law and public international law in general. They include questions such as the extent of the SC’s powers, a possible customary international law exception to personal immunities before international criminal tribunals, and the practical importance of preserving such immunities for international peace and security. Thus, watching the hearings online has certainly kept some of us entranced during the entire week.

However, aside from the special role attached to academic commentary and from the systemic issues discussed in the hearings and in the written observations, one question seems to have been at the heart of the debates on Al-Bashir’s immunities. This question is whether the SC can implicitly derogate from personal immunities otherwise applicable under treaties or customary international law, or whether it must do so explicitly. Indeed, all parties and participants seem to agree that the SC has the power to displace personal immunities and other rules of treaty or general international law, except for jus cogens norms. Yet they disagree as to how clear the Council must be in order to do so. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Hartford Guidelines on Speech Crimes in International Criminal Law

Published on August 31, 2018        Author: 
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Armed conflicts and mass atrocities are usually preceded by a propaganda campaign in which politicians and public figures foment ethnic, national, racial or religious hatred, and incite their followers to acts of violence. Since the ancient Greeks, criminal law has held the person inciting the crime as responsible as the material perpetrator and yet historically, the international legal mechanisms available to interdict and punish inciters have been meager.

International tribunals face unique challenges when adjudicating international speech crimes such as direct and public incitement to commit genocide and instigating crimes against humanity. Courts must balance freedom of expression, a right protected by international conventions, with the need to regulate potentially harmful speech. Offences such as instigating persecution and incitement to genocide remain an unsettled area of international law where the evidence required to satisfy the elements is unclear. Recently at the ICC, prosecution cases relying heavily on speech acts to demonstrate a contribution to an alleged criminal plan have collapsed at the pre-trial or trial stage (e.g., Mbarushimana and Ruto/Sang). Even when the prosecution secures convictions, the legal reasoning in the judgments is often roundly criticized by legal scholars (e.g., Nahimana and Bikindi at the ICTR).

With inchoate crimes such as incitement to genocide, the primary task of the court is to determine the intentionality of the speaker, a task that is made more difficult by the fact that propagandists often use coded or euphemistic speech which courts may perceive as symbolic or expressive, rather than as directly advocating a crime. In the case of completed crimes, international courts must ascertain whether there is a causal nexus between the expression and any subsequent offence in complex, overdetermined situations where multiple forces are at work and intervening factors may exist. Read the rest of this entry…

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Transitional Justice Without Truth?

Published on August 27, 2018        Author: 
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During his election campaign, Colombia’s new president Iván Duque announced that he would seek amendments to the peace agreement with the FARC-EP of 24 November 2016 and the ensuing unique Colombian system of Transitional Justice (TJ) (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición, SIVJRNR– see here for details of that system). Now, the parliamentary group of his party (Centro Democrático, CD) in the Colombian Congress has followed his words with deeds and launched a proposal for a constitutional amendment (Transitional Article 5A) (of which the government, however, was, according to its spokesperson, not aware). Under this amendment, all the TJ-organs, in particular the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición) and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), will be denied access to confidential information affecting national security. This proposed amendment follows another change that the CD  has proposed to the procedural regime of the Special Jurisdiciton for Peace, shortly after the presidential election (still in the former Congress). Under that change, surrender of military personnel to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace would be voluntary and there would be a separate jurisdiction for the military. However, the constitutionality of this rule is very doubtful because it would undermine the constitutional TJ framework. From this perspective, it is consistent that the new government is now preparing an amendment of the Constitution itself, by denying the TJ organs access to information.

Of course, the new proposal amounts to a frontal attack on any TJ-system, because its central component is the establishment of (historical) truth and, based on this, a cultural memory. Such a cultural memory is important for any transitional society in its entirety, both for victims and perpetrators, as both groups are part of this society. But how can a proposal that practically hinders the establishment of truth and memory be reconciled with victims’ rights that the new government has repeatedly called for, in particular the right to truth? How can historical truth be established without access to the information in question? Read the rest of this entry…

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Jurisdictional Immunities in the New York Southern District Court? The case of Rukoro et al. v. Federal Republic of Germany

Published on August 13, 2018        Author:  and
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In 2015, German State officials began referring to the atrocities committed by Imperial German soldiers in today’s Namibia between 1904 and 1908 as ‘what would now be called genocide’. This paradigm shift sparked considerable societal debate about Germany’s long neglected colonial past – finally, one might say. Although an official apology is still lacking, Germany and Namibia are currently addressing this ‘terrible chapter in history’ at an inter-State level. Despite this diplomatic progress, however, and much to the dismay of many descendants of victims of the German colonial era, individual compensation is not a subject of those negotiations. On 5 January 2017, various Herero and Nama representatives filed a (subsequently amended) class action complaint against Germany in the New York Southern District Court, which addresses both past and present day issues (for an overview of the case see here and here). The plaintiffs, first, request compensation for ‘the horrific genocide and unlawful taking of property’ by Germany (complaintpara 1). Secondly, the plaintiffs ask the Court to declare that their exclusion from the ongoing negotiations between Germany and Namibia violates international law (ibid. para 2).

After more than one and a half years of proceedings, things now seem to be getting serious. At a ‘pre-trial conference’ held on 31 July, both parties pleaded for the first time on the delicate question of the Court’s jurisdiction. This short contribution focuses on whether and to what extent Germany is entitled to claim immunity from jurisdiction. It then analyses at which point of the proceedings this immunity would be (or has already been) violated, and considers possible implications of the case from an immunity perspective and beyond.

Can Germany claim immunity from jurisdiction?

Deriving from the sovereign equality of States, jurisdictional immunity protects States from being subjected to the jurisdiction of courts in another State. It is widely accepted in contemporary international law that States only have an obligation to give effect to this immunity for another State’s acta jure imperii. The ICJ defined these as ‘exercises of sovereign power’ (Jurisdictional Immunities, para 60), as distinct from States’ private and commercial activities (acta jure gestionis), which are excluded from the scope of immunity.

Today’s negotiations between Germany and Namibia – the object of the plaintiffs’ second request – touch upon issues such as inter-State compensation (and other forms of redress). Such matters can only be settled by States acting in sovereign capacity, i.e. by way of acta jure imperii. The various acts of the colonial era – the objects of the plaintiffs’ first request – have to be distinguished. The genocidal crimes were committed by Imperial Germany’s armed forces in military operations. A State’s armed forces typically exercise sovereign power. The situation is less clear when it comes to the takings of property. The plaintiffs seem to argue that these were sovereign acts (complaint, para 39). Yet, the German authorities also stripped many Herero and Nama of their belongings by (grossly unfair) contracts. If viewed as private law agreements, these might constitute acta jure gestionis. From an international law perspective, a more nuanced assessment of the different forms of colonial wrongs could therefore have been a promising strand of argument for the complaint. Read the rest of this entry…

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Rome Statute at 20: Suggestions to States to Strengthen the ICC

Published on August 6, 2018        Author:  and
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC, Court), the world’s only permanent tribunal with a mandate to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The euphoria that greeted its adoption has been tempered by an appreciation of its limits. Disappointment with the Court’s record has led to pessimism about the future of international criminal justice generally. Critics point out that the ICC has spent nearly US$1.5 billion since it began operations in 2002 and, in that time, convicted just three people on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The truth is more nuanced

But the ICC is more active, and its cases more complex, than many of its critics realize. The ICC has brought cases against 42 individuals, resulting in eight convictions (five for witness tampering). Cases have failed, for a variety of reasons – including state obstruction of access to evidence, and bribery and intimidation of witnesses – at the pre-trial, trial and appeal stages. Four persons are currently on trial; another is in ICC custody at the confirmation of charges stage. A large proportion of those charged are fugitives.

Another key point is that the ICC is a court of last resort. It does not have primacy of jurisdiction like the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Rwanda (ICTR), Sierra Leone (SCSL), and Cambodia (ECCC). Instead, the ICC’s guiding principle is complementarity: it will not intervene if a State is genuinely investigating or prosecuting. So, by design, the ICC’s duty to investigate and prosecute is deferential to domestic jurisdictions, which can result in challenging circumstances for all involved. Unlike predecessor tribunals, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) must devote considerable resources to encouraging, and assessing the progress of, domestic legal processes.

The Court carries a heavy workload and is forced to spread its resources thinly. Whereas the ICTY, ICTR, SCSL and ECCC had scores of lawyers and analysts poring over evidence from one conflict, the ICC has to deal with many. It is currently carrying out “preliminary examinations” in Afghanistan, Colombia, Gabon, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestine, the Philippines, Ukraine and Venezuela. It is conducting investigations in Uganda, the DRC, Darfur, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Georgia and Burundi. Each requires mastering a complex conflict with shifting alliances, an array of State and non-State actors, and dozens of societal factors central to a proper contextual understanding. Each requires gaining access to reliable evidence necessary to determine which party is responsible for which crimes, and whether the state is genuinely investigating or prosecuting. This requires a great deal of diplomatic engagement with numerous States. Read the rest of this entry…

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Geographical Remoteness in Bemba

Published on July 30, 2018        Author: 
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Introduction

The ICC Appeals Chamber’s acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo continues to provoke discussion. In a previous post, I addressed the Appeals Chamber’s treatment of the relevance of a commander’s motivation in taking measures to prevent or punish the crimes of his subordinates. This issue of motivations was one of two putative errors emphasised by the Appeals Chamber in its summative paragraph – paragraph 191 – on the Trial Chamber’s finding that Mr Bemba failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures. The second putative error identified in that paragraph concerned the Trial Chamber’s failure to properly take into account the difficulties that Mr Bemba would have faced as a remote commander sending troops to a foreign country.

The description of Mr Bemba as a remote commander has been emphasised in numerous media reports, as well as in academic commentary. A concern raised in the latter is that the decision introduces a new distinction into the law of command responsibility – a distinction between remote and non-remote commanders, with the former being held to a lower standard than the latter. This post analyses how the Appeals Chamber dealt with the remoteness issue. First, it sets out the Majority Judgment’s findings on Mr Bemba’s status as a remote commander and suggests that it is not clear whether it intended to draw a legal distinction between commanders. Second, it argues that the drawing of such a distinction would be indefensible as a matter of principle – geographical position ought not be used to distinguish between commanders. Third, and happily, it shows that even if the Majority Judgment is unclear, President Oboe-Osuji’s Concurring Separate Opinion and the Joint Dissenting Opinion of Judges Hofmanski and Monageng indicate that there weren’t three votes for the introduction of any such distinction. In other words, the decision in Bemba does not stand for the proposition that we are now faced with an additional distinction in the law of command responsibility. Finally, it returns to Bemba itself, and the Majority Judgment’s reasoning on this point. That reasoning is not convincing. Read the rest of this entry…

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Not Appropriate:  PTC I, Palestine and the Development of a Discriminatory ICC Jurisprudence

Published on July 26, 2018        Author:  and
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On 13 July, Pre-Trial Chamber I (PTC I) issued an unprecedented decision in which it ordered the Registry to establish unique public information and outreach activities for the “benefit of the victims in the situation in Palestine”, as well as to report on its situation activities on an ongoing basis.  No Pre-Trial Chamber has made the same orders with respect to victim outreach in a situation under preliminary examination before, and the legality, timing, and singular nature of the decision all give rise to concern. 

The decision singles out victims of one situation whilst ignoring others, reflecting a double standard which forms the basis of Israel’s complaints that its rights to equal treatment are systematically violated before 21st century international organisations and tribunals. In this sense, the decision is illuminating as it demonstrates to international criminal law practitioners how PTC I has substantiated Israel’s complaint of double standards in the Chambers’ first substantive engagement with the Situation in Palestine. Given the unique way that the Situation in Palestine has been singled out, PTC I’s decision will be viewed by many as a political one.  This is an accusation which, especially after the collapse of the Kenya cases, the ICC should be more wary of making itself susceptible to.

The Legality of the PTC Decision Read the rest of this entry…

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