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Interests of Justice? The ICC urgently needs reforms

Published on June 11, 2019        Author: 
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The demands for an “independent evaluation” through a small group of experts, formulated by four former presidents of the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and accompanied by several critical blogs (see, inter alia, here, here, here and here) is the outcome of several controversial court decisions and the Court’s manifest problem in its decision-making process, i.e., its serious governance problems.

Probably the most controversial decision, made on 12 April 2019, concerns the rejection by Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) II of the Prosecutor’s application of the initiation of a (formal) investigation into the Afghanistan situation involving crimes allegedly committed by the Taliban, Afghan and US military forces. The PTC based its decision on a broad interpretation of the ambiguous concept of “interests of justice” (Art. 53(1)(c) Rome Statute) and the expected lack of cooperation by Afghanistan and the USA, allegedly resulting in limited chances of a successful investigation. Thereby the Chamber converts the interests of justice concept into a utilitarian efficiency clause which is predicated on the possible success of the proceedings. Not only is this difficult to reconcile with the rationale of the said concept but also incompatible with the wording of Art. 53(1)(c) which links the “interest of justice” to, inter alia, the gravity of the crime and the interests of the victims. Yet, both of these criteria speak for the opposite result than that reached by the Chamber, namely the opening of the formal investigation. For the gravity of the crimes is acknowledged by the Chamber itself and the victims’ interests are reflected by the submission of information by hundreds of them during the preliminary examination. If a Chamber considers that despite the existence of gravity and interests of victims “an investigation would not serve the interests of justice”, i.e. “nonetheless” (Art. 53(1)(c)) the existence of these criteria, it must show that there are more important “substantial reasons” which displace the prima facie interests of justice (derived from gravity and victims’ interests) in favour of opening a formal investigation. In other words, while the term “nonetheless” makes clear that there may be countervailing considerations which may speak against the opening of an investigation despite gravity and victims’ interests, these countervailing considerations must be thoroughly substantiated and, at any rate, do not turn the interests of justice clause into a mere, free floating policy factor which gives a Chamber an unfettered discretion (see also Ambos, Treatise International Criminal Law Vol. III, 2016, p. 390). The present Chamber fails to grasp these complexities and therebyshows a lack of sensibility with regard to the “interests of justice” concept. Thus, it is not surprising that the decision has met serious criticisms in the international criminal law blogsphere (see here, here, here and here) and the Prosecutor filed a leave to appeal request on 7 June 2019. The most recent Appeals Chamber decision from the 6 May 2019, denying the personal immunity of the then Sudanese President Al-Bashir and interpreting the non-immunity rule of Art. 27 Rome Statute as one of customary law, has also received some criticism (see here and here) but ultimately deserves support (see here and here) since it confirms the historical (Nuremberg) trend of non-immunity in international criminal justice. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Hidden Reading of the ICC Appeals Chamber’s Judgment in the Jordan Referral Re Al-Bashir

Published on June 6, 2019        Author: 
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On 6 May 2019, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued the Judgment in the Jordan Referral re Al-Bashir Appeal. It found that Jordan had no ground to refuse to execute the request by the ICC for arrest and surrender of Omar Al-Bashir, the then Head of State of Sudan – a State not party to the Rome Statute.  In this highly controversial judgment, the Appeals Chamber held that ‘[t]here is neither State practice nor opinio juris that would support the existence of Head of State immunity under customary international law vis-à-vis an international court.’ (par. 1, 113) Endorsing the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I’s 2011 Malawi Non-Cooperation Decision, the Appeals Chamber furthermore held that ‘[t]he absence of a rule of customary international law recognising Head of State immunity vis-à-vis international courts is relevant […] also for the horizontal relationship between States when a State is requested by an international court to arrest and surrender the Head of State of another State.’ (par. 114)  

The Chamber could have ended its judgment on the issue of immunities there, as this finding on customary international law, if correct, would seem to dispose of the matter. However, it decided to also consider the position taken  by Pre-Trial Chamber II in the Jordan Non-Cooperation Decision, that the immunity of the Sudanese President was removed by virtue of the Security Council (SC) resolution referring the situation in Darfur to the ICC.

In this post, I will argue that the Chamber not only confirmed the legal validity of what has been termed the ‘Security Council route’ – as developed in the Jordan & South Africa Non-Cooperation Decisions – but actually upheld that it is such reasoning that must be applied at the horizontal level to displace the immunity of a Head of State of a non-party State. I will show that this conclusion flows from the Joint Concurring Opinion of 4 of the 5 Appeals Chamber judges (Judges Eboe-Osuji, Morrison, Hofmański and Bossa) – constantly referred to in the main Judgment for further elaboration – and the recently issued Q&A regarding the Appeals Chamber Judgment. Read the rest of this entry…

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Whither the Aspirational ICC, Welcome the ‘Practical’ Court?

Published on May 22, 2019        Author: 
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What is the promise of the International Criminal Court (ICC)? What do we, as observers, scholars, and constructive critics of the Court, believe that the ICC should do in a world of populism, altered balances of power, and persistent atrocity? Why has the Court been able to achieve so little and what would be required, in terms of new strategies and reforms, to build a better ICC? What do we believe that the institution should look like in the future? What is our vision of the ICC?

Over the past few weeks, EJIL:Talk! has hosted a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays seeking to answer some of these questions. With this piece, I want to ask admittedly less than legal questions: is the ICC becoming a less aspirational institution and can we balance the aspirations of ICC justice with the need to deliver meaningful accountability?

The Shadow of Expectations

It is now conventional wisdom that, for the majority of its existence, the ICC and its backers promised too much to too many. As is often pointed out, the Court and its most fervent champions set expectations that the ICC could never meet. They insisted that the Court would end impunity for international crimes, put victims front and center in all of its work, transcend global power relations, deter mass atrocities, hold the most powerful to account, promote reconciliation… you name it. It’s a laundry list of things that the ICC didn’t achieve because it couldn’t achieve them. It should never have been asked to.

The ICC hasn’t been a panacea for political ills such as violent political conflict or social challenges such as reconciliation. Unmet expectations have thus left many proponents privately regretful of having espoused unrealistic expectations about the Court and worrying about the disappointment that ensued. Now, the aim of many – both inside and outside of the ICC – is to focus on being realistic and on what the Court can realistically achieve. But there may be a cost to bending too far towards practicality: the loss of an institution that is meaningfully aspirational. The goal must be to strike a balance practicality and aspiration. Read the rest of this entry…

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To be a Party or not to be a Party: Malaysia’s envisaged ‘withdrawal’ from its (pending) accession to the Rome Statute

Published on May 14, 2019        Author:  and
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As inter alia confirmed by its recent judgments concerning the Afghanistan situation and the Al Bashir case, the ICC currently finds itself in truly turbulent times. What is more, is that the Rome Statute has turned out to be a real treasure trove when it comes to the international law of treaties. This includes, inter alia, the ratification of the Rome Statute by Palestine and the ensuing question as to whether the accession by Palestine ought to be counted towards the quorum of 30 ratifications of the Kampala Amendment so as to provide for its entry into force (see here), as well as other intriguing questions of treaty law raised by the Kampala compromise on the crime of aggression and the way in which to eventually amend the Rome Statute (see here). The withdrawals by Gambia and South Africa, which both later, albeit for different reasons, ‘withdrew from their respective withdrawals’ before they even became effective (see here and here), as well as Burundi’s withdrawal in October 2017 (see here), and most recently that by the Phillipines, again raised various issues of treaty law. 

Yet another question of treaty law relating to the Rome Statute is emerging. After having submitted its instrument of accession to the UN Secretary General on 4 March 2019 (see here), which in accordance with Art. 126 (2) of the Rome Statute means that Malaysia would have formally become a State Party on 1 June 2019, the Malaysian Prime Minister announced on 5 April 2019 the Malaysian government’s decision to, as he put it, ‘rescind its membership of the Statute’. Read the rest of this entry…

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Reforming the International Criminal Court: Is it Time for the Assembly of State Parties to be the adults in the room?

Published on May 8, 2019        Author: 
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The self-inflicted misfortunes of the International Criminal Court continue. The recent Pre-Trial Chamber decision not to authorise the opening of an investigation in Afghanistan has already generated considerable controversy (see here, here, here, here and here). The rather surprising news that Judge Ozaki would be allowed to continue to serve part time on the Court while becoming Japan’s ambassador to Estonia has also drawn criticism. And, of course, on Monday the Al Bashir immunity decision was handed down. Amidst the hubbub, one other development has gone relatively unremarked. The first four presidents of the ICC Assembly of States Parties (ASP) have released a joint op-ed through the Atlantic Council entitled “the International criminal court needs fixing”. For present purposes, it is enough to note several key points.

The op-ed calls for “an independent assessment of the court’s functioning by a small group of international experts”. This call appears triggered by the Afghanistan decision which they see as expressing “a lack of confidence that the Court could successfully carry out the job.” The rest of the piece pursues two central points – and a cluster of worrying claims. Read the rest of this entry…

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ICC Appeals Chamber Holds that Heads of State Have No Immunity Under Customary International Law Before International Tribunals

Published on May 6, 2019        Author: 
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The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has, this morning, issued what seems to be an extremely controversial decision on Head of State Immunity. At the time of writing, the full written judgment is not yet available in the appeal by Jordan against the decision of the Pre-Trial Chamber referring that state to the UN Security Council for failing to arrest then President of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir when he attended an Arab League Summit in March 2017.  However, in the oral and written summary of the judgment, delivered this morning by the President of the Court, Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, the Appeals Chamber appears to have held that under customary international law, heads of state have no immunity from criminal prosecution international criminal courts. The provision in Article 27(2) of the ICC Statute that “Immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person” , according to the summary of the judgment:

“represents more than a stipulation in treaty law. The provision also reflects the status of customary international law, as it concerns the jurisdiction that an international criminal court is properly entitled to exercise.”

In so holding, the Appeals Chamber, once again changes the basis on which the ICC has held that the Sudanese (now former) President was not immune from the arrest in ICC states parties that he visited (for a quick overview of the Court’s previous inconsistent decisions, see this AJIL Unbound piece). Indeed the Appeals Chamber appears to explicitly endorse the much criticised decision of Pre-Trial chamber I in the Malawi Decision. The Summary states that:

“39. In this regard, the Appeals Chamber is fully satisfied that the pronouncements made by the Pre-Trial Chamber I in the Malawi Referral Decision — and those made by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the case of Charles Taylor (who was indicted before that international court when he was the sitting President of Liberia) — have adequately and correctly confirmed the absence of a rule of customary international law recognising Head of State immunity before international courts in the exercise of proper jurisdiction. 
40. The effect of absence of a rule of customary law recognising Head of State immunity, in relation to international courts, is not readily avoided through the backdoor: by asserting immunity that operates in the horizontal relationship between States, in a manner that would effectively bar an international court from exercising its jurisdiction over the person whose arrest and surrender it has requested. The law does not readily condone something to be done through the backdoor, if the law has forbidden the thing to be done through the front door.”

This is stunning and appears to be deeply misguided. It is also, in my opinion, a very dangerous and unwise move for the Court to make. This reasoning appears to assert that parties to the Rome Statute, have, by creating the Court, taken away the rights of non-party states under international law. Dangerous because this reasoning is likely to stiffen opposition to the Court by non-parties. The John Bolton’s of this world and many people far more reasonable will point to this ruling to set out precisely why it is important to oppose this court and other international criminal courts. As I stated here many years ago, the Malawi decision was a terrible one.  It was very poorly reasoned and roundly criticised by others as well (see Bill Schabas and Dov Jacobs). It is extremely disappointing to see it resurrected. Not least because the issue of the immunity of heads of state before international criminal courts is not what is at issue in these cases. What was is at issue is the immunity of heads of states from arrest by other states acting at the request of an international criminal court. That the head of state may not have immunity before the international criminal court does not, without more, say anything about whether he or she may have immunity before a foreign state.

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Afghanistan and the ‘interests of justice’; an unwise exercise?

Published on April 26, 2019        Author: 
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It has been more than a week now that a reference to the ‘interests of justice’ has highjacked the international criminal law blogosphere. The recent decision by the International Criminal Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to reject the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP)’s request for authorization to open an investigation in the Afghanistan situation, solely on the basis of interests of justice, not only has triggered ‘outcry’, but it has also united various scholars and experts from very different backgrounds. Characteristically enough, this decision has been described as problematic for the legitimacy of the Court, especially in a period in which the Court needs a credibility boosting (see Vasiliev), as legally wrong, either due to the PTC’s review without prior invocation of interests of justice by the Prosecutor (see Jacobs ) or due to its de novo review (see Heller ), and as dangerous for the entire feasibility of the project, given the message it conveys in cases of no cooperation. In simple words, there is a striking consensus that this is a very bad decision (see De Vos and Kersten).

Several legal aspects of the decision have been already addressed by a series of commentators (see Jacobs and Akande and Labuda) and in the interests of  justice for the readers, I will refrain from repeating them. I have also suggested in the past the revision of the very narrow OTP policy paper (see JICJ) and recommended the consideration of the interests of justice via the angle of a fairness based theory of prosecutorial legitimacy (see EJIL). However, for the purposes of this very short intervention I would like solely to question the judicial wisdom, or mainly the lack thereof, to utilize this controversial tool in this particular moment of time.  In other words, was the invocation by the judges of this concept for the very first time a wise exercise of their judgment or not?  

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The ICC and US Retaliatory Visa Measures: Can the UN Do More to Support the Privileges & Immunities of the Prosecutor?

Published on April 23, 2019        Author:  and
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On 12 April 2019, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber II decided to reject the Prosecutor’s request to open an investigation into the situation in Afghanistan on the grounds that an investigation would not be “in the interests of justice,” though it found that the case otherwise satisfied the requirements of jurisdiction and admissibility set forth in the Rome Statute (see recent posts here). The ruling came on the heels of the US revocation on 5 April of ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s visa for entry to the US, and prior US threats to take action against the ICC for examining the situations in Afghanistan and Palestine.

While the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) made no direct mention of recent US hostility towards the ICC, it appears to have implied, and others have suggested (here, here, and here), that such pressure played a role in the decision. As the PTC noted, “subsequent changes within the relevant political landscape both in Afghanistan and in key States (both Parties and non-Parties to the Statute), coupled with the complexity and volatility of the political climate still surrounding the Afghan scenario, make it extremely difficult to gauge the prospects of securing meaningful cooperation from relevant authorities for the future […]” (para. 94).

Senior US officials were quick to claim victory and take credit for the development, ostensibly linking US pressure to the outcome. Alluding to a potential appeal of the PTC decision, as well as the Prosecutor’s preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine, President Trump menaced that US actions against the ICC could continue: “any attempt to target American, Israeli or allied personnel for prosecution will be met with a swift and vigorous response.”

This post considers how the United Nations can—and may be obliged to—play a bigger role in helping to protect the Prosecutor and her team from one form of this US hostility towards the Court: visa restrictions. Despite US obligations under the US-UN Headquarters Agreement to allow the transit of individuals conducting business at UN Headquarters, some ambiguity surrounds the question of when and under what conditions the US will allow the Prosecutor access to Headquarters now that her visa has been revoked. Read the rest of this entry…

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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…

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