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

Published on March 22, 2019        Author: 

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: 

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

Published on February 8, 2019        Author: 

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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Acquittals by the International Criminal Court

Published on January 18, 2019        Author: 

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: 

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

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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The Ethos of “Positive Complementarity”

Published on December 11, 2018        Author: 

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 

I am grateful to Dapo Akande and Mark Kersten for their invitation to contribute to this “symposium” on HRW’s valuable report on the impact of the preliminary examinations (“PE”) of the ICC Office of the Prosecutor (“OTP” or the “Office”) on national justice. I happen to respond to this invitation in-between “complementarity missions” to two countries selected as case studies by HRW, namely Colombia and Guinea. I therefore hope that my modest input will be seen as being informed by first-hand field experience in the practice of the Office’s “positive approach to complementarity.”

In past years, preliminary examinations have been recognized as a core OTP activity. They have thus become the subject of increased attention by multiple stakeholders and a topic of academic research. To an extent, this new scrutiny is a recognition of the relevance and importance of “PE activities” and has been partly triggered by the OTP’s own transparency as demonstrated by its annual reporting and open-door policy. Inevitably, however, increased scrutiny comes with increased criticism, which are always welcome when constructive and well-informed, less so when they are speculative or based on lack of knowledge and understanding of the OTP’s work in practice. In this regard, I am grateful to the HRW team for engaging substantively with the Office over the course of their project and for taking the time to better understand our modus operandi, as well as the challenges, dilemmas and limitations faced by the OTP in its endeavours.

While the HRW report offers a generally balanced and reasonable assessment, I do not share some of their findings. It is nonetheless comforting to read an acknowledgment of positive changes introduced in the OTP practice in the past years, particularly those under Prosecutor Bensouda’s tenure. It appears that the Office’s efforts to explain its policy and activities have borne fruit over time, as also recognized by the contributions of Sanchez and Stahn to this symposium. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Complementarity Toolkit?

Published on December 10, 2018        Author: 

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 

In the long-term, bolstering national proceedings is crucial in the fight against impunity for the most serious crimes, and is fundamental to hopes for the ICC’s broad impact. It can also restore trust in national institutions, which have been severely damaged or have failed completely in a context of armed conflict or systematic repression.

A recent Human Rights Watch report provides a detailed examination of how the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) can trigger domestic investigations and prosecutions into serious crimes, looking at Colombia, Georgia, Guinea and the United Kingdom as case studies. The report discusses a range of practical actions that the OTP can take as part of its complementarity activities during the admissibility phase of its analysis, and how these actions have played out in various contexts.

In and of itself, the report is a fascinating and useful overview of the chronology of the OTPs engagement in Colombia, Georgia, Guinea and the United Kingdom, with insights and analysis from individuals who played a role in each situation – insider accounts from civil society activists, officials from national prosecuting and judicial authorities, diplomats, and OTP staff.

One of the most enlightening elements that comes out from Human Rights Watch’s research is the detailed examples of various actions that the OTP has taken in different situations. Drawing them out and compiling them, it is striking that they comprise a coherent and practicable toolkit of complementarity measures. They also fall squarely in line with the steps that national prosecutors have to take to retain control over proceedings in their countries. Broadly speaking, they fall into five steps — Read the rest of this entry…

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Complementarity (in)action in the UK?

Published on December 7, 2018        Author: 

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 

In response to the 2014 re-opening of an International Criminal Court (ICC) preliminary examination into the situation in Iraq, Britain put in place legal measures to address the alleged crimes committed by UK forces in Iraq currently being examined by the ICC. These measures include a specialized investigatory unit, known as the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), replaced last year by a smaller service police investigation, known as SPLI. British authorities argue that their efforts represent “a clear demonstration of complementarity in action”, therefore precluding an ICC investigation.

In Pressure Point – a recent research report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigating the claims made about positive complementarity in four case studies, including the Iraq / UK situation – HRW rightly paints a more murky picture of the legal processes in Britain as well as the ICC’s ability to influence them. Indeed, HRW observes that legal responses in Britain have been “piecemeal, ad-hoc, and almost exclusively driven by the efforts of individual victims, their families, and legal representatives”. It also concludes that the ICC’s examination “neither catalyzed national investigative activities in the UK, nor impacted the existing domestic structure established to address allegations of abuses by British armed forces in Iraq” in any significant way. My own research similarly points to significant challenges in making positive complementarity work in the Iraq / UK situation.

In this post, I consider some of the key challenges for ensuring positive complementarity in Britain and reflect on what this tells us more broadly about the ICC’s complementarity regime. Read the rest of this entry…

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The ICC’s Impact on National Justice: Can the ICC Prosecutor Catalyze Domestic Cases?

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 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a court of last resort. Under the court’s treaty, the Rome Statute, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, the world’s worst crimes are admissible before the ICC only if national authorities do not genuinely investigate and prosecute cases. Far from simply a jurisdictional limitation, this principle of “complementarity” transforms the ICC from a single institution into a broader system for prosecuting international crimes, rooted in national courts.

Bolstering national proceedings is crucial to giving full effect to the Rome Statute system. It’s also necessary to broaden victims’ access to justice. The number of situations in which the ICC should act is probably far greater than the court’s founders envisioned. The ICC’s limited resources—provided all too sparingly by its member countries—mean it is struggling to keep up.

More attention should be paid to the ICC’s potential as an active player on national justice. Under the concept of “positive complementarity” it can serve as part of a wide array of efforts to press and support national authorities to carry out genuine investigations and prosecutions. The ICC is not a development agency, but it can lend expertise, broker assistance between other actors, and maintain focus on the need for accountability.

This is the case when the ICC opens its own investigations, as there will be a need for additional domestic investigations and prosecutions to bring comprehensive accountability. But the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has a particularly important role to play when it is still considering whether to open an investigation, during “preliminary examinations.”

This is because the prosecutor’s office has unique leverage in some of these preliminary examinations. If national authorities have an interest in avoiding ICC intervention, they can do that by conducting genuine national proceedings. By making the most of this leverage, the prosecutor’s office can be an effective catalyst for justice. The office recognizes that opportunity and has made it a policy goal to encourage national proceedings when it is feasible.

Human Rights Watch supports these efforts, given that they could help extend the reach of justice. But building on a set of 2011 recommendations, we wanted to take a fresh look at whether and how this policy is working, with a view toward strengthening its effect.

Our findings are set out in a May 2018 report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice; Lessons from Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, and the United Kingdom. 

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