Over the past few days, there has been discussion of whether the attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in the UK, by the use of a nerve agent amounts to an unlawful use force by Russia in breach of Art. 2(4) of the United Nations Charter and customary international law (see posts by Marc Weller, Tom Ruys, and Ashley Deeks). There is agreement that if the action was attributable to Russia, it would amount to a breach of at least some obligation under international law. Marc Weller, points out that the act would amount to an unlawful intervention and a violation of the territorial sovereignty of the UK. Marko argues that these acts would also be a violation of the human rights of the individuals concerned. However, the British Prime Minister characterised the act as an unlawful use of force. What I wish to do in this post is to ask why this categorisation might matter in international law. What exactly are the implications, as a matter of law, of characterising the act as a use of force? This was an issue that was raised in the comments to Marc Weller’s post and some of the points I make below have already been made in that discussion though I expand on them. As discussed below, this characterisation might have far reaching implications in a number of areas of international law, extending beyond the possibility of self-defence, to the possibility of countermeasures, the law relating to state responsibility, the qualification of a situation in the law of armed conflict, and international criminal law. I accept that many of the points discussed below are not clear cut, and some are even contentious. However, I think that having a catalogue of the possible consequences of the arguments relating to the use of force helps us to see more clearly what is at stake when we make these arguments.
The Use of Nerve Agents in Salisbury: Why does it Matter Whether it Amounts to a Use of Force in International Law?
International Law or Comity? Exploring whether Grace Mugabe can successfully claim immunity for crimes committed on foreign soil.
On 14 August 2017 various news sites reported that Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe had assaulted a young woman. A court hearing to obtain a statement from Mrs Mugabe was scheduled for the 15th but she failed to appear. On the evening of the 16th the Government of Zimbabwe directed a note verbale to the South African government invoking diplomatic immunity on her behalf and stating that Mrs Mugabe’s itinerary in South Africa included amongst private matters her attendance and participation at the scheduled SADC Heads of States/Governments Summit and other Bi-lateral Diplomatic Meetings.
The question which has gripped lawyers and laymen alike is whether or not Mrs Mugabe can successfully claim any kind of immunity under international law to shield herself from arrest and prosecution. Media reports asserted that Mrs Mugabe claimed “diplomatic” immunity”. However, as the spouse of a sitting Head of State, ordinarily resident in Zimbabwe, Mrs Mugabe cannot be considered a diplomatic agent and is not entitled to the protections afforded under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). Customary international law also confers personal immunity on some state officials. This personal immunity is extensive in scope, and wide enough to cover both official and private acts by heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers as the Arrest Warrant Case points out. As Mrs Mugabe does not fall within any of the categories above, she cannot claim personal immunity. In addition, customary international law accords, functional immunity in relation to acts performed in an official capacity. This immunity covers the official acts of all state officials and of those who act on behalf of the state. It is determined by reference to the nature of the acts in question rather than the particular office of the official who performed them. However, the alleged assault by Mrs Mugabe was not undertaken in the performance of any official duty and functional immunity is unavailable in relation to that act.
This post considers whether the Mrs Mugabe may have been entitled to immunity, while in South Africa, as the spouse of a head of state. The post first considers whether the spouse of a representative to SADC, an international organization, may be entitled to immunity. It then explores the immunity of family members of state officials on special missions and of heads of states. Read the rest of this entry…
In a judgment given last month, on 6 July, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) confronted the vexed legal question of immunities for heads of state who are alleged to have committed international crimes. It did so in a case involving South Africa’s failure to arrest President Bashir of Sudan when he attended the AU heads of summit meeting in Johannesburg in June 2015.
While Judge Marc Perrin de Brichambaut wrote a separate opinion, the three-panel Pre-trial Chamber (PTC) reached the unanimous conclusion that South Africa had failed to comply with the request that had been issued by the ICC to arrest Bashir for serious crimes allegedly committed in the Darfur region of Sudan. The PTC found that states parties to the Rome Statute, such as South Africa, are required to arrest and surrender Bashir to the ICC where he is found in their territory.
We are not here debating the merits or otherwise of the PTC decision. It is enough to stress that the judgment comes at a fraught political time for the ICC, and its relationship with African states and the AU. The impetus for this joint piece arises from the legitimate and expressed concerns of African states parties (like South Africa) regarding their obligations to cooperate with the ICC in surrendering heads of states of non-state parties (like Sudan) to the Court in the light of, inter alia, the rules of customary international law on immunities.
The technical legal issues relate to the relationship between Articles 27 and 98 of the Rome Statute, which has been raised by a number of African states, particularly South Africa in relation to the Bashir case, as well as the African Union (AU). The subject has been a central concern of the AU as well as ICC member-states seeking measures to reform and improve the ICC. The concern, in a nutshell, is how to balance the obligations owed to the ICC to arrest heads of state, with the customary international law immunities that are ordinarily accorded to such officials. African states have felt the brunt of what have been described as “competing obligations” – being pulled in one direction to assist the ICC, and in the other direction by customary international law duty to respect official immunities. In recent times, Jordan, regarded by many as a friend of the ICC and the first Arab state to ratify the Rome Statute, has also had to confront the tension between the Rome Statute duty to arrest Al Bashir and the duty under customary international law to respect his immunities.
In the lead-up to the PTC’s finding on 6 July, South Africa had been invited by the ICC to make submissions to the PTC explaining its reasons for failing to arrest Bashir. The Prosecutor of the ICC filed submissions in response. And the PTC also admitted the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (the NGO that had brought cases in South Africa’s courts successfully challenging the government’s failure to arrest Bashir) to make submissions [all available here].
We were on opposing sides as lawyers in that dispute (with Tladi acting for the government, and du Plessis acting as counsel for SALC). We nevertheless now write jointly (and in our personal capacities) because of a shared belief that there remains a need for the dispute to be resolved finally through judicial means. Read the rest of this entry…
Arbitration Agreement is no Waiver of State Immunity from Jurisdiction for the Purposes of Recognition and Enforcement – Comment on Commercial Court of Moscow’s decision in Tatneft v Ukraine
In April 2017, the Russia-based PJSC Tatneft initiated against Ukraine the process of recognition and enforcement in Russia of an arbitral award issued in the PCA investment arbitration OAO Tatneft v Ukraine under the UNCITRAL Rules and the Russia-Ukraine BIT. This June, the Commercial Court for the City of Moscow (the court of first instance, hereinafter – “the Court” or “the Russian Court”) dismissed Tatneft’s recognition and enforcement application, inter alia, sustaining Ukraine’s plea of immunity from jurisdiction [see А40-67511/2017 (in Russian)]. This post comments on the part of the Court’s judgment concerning Ukraine’s immunity from jurisdiction.
The Positions of the Parties and the Judgment
Insofar as it is possible to ascertain the crux of the parties’ submissions from the text of the judgment, Ukraine raised two objections to jurisdiction. The first objection was based on Ukraine’s immunity from jurisdiction in the recognition and enforcement proceedings, and the second on the Russian courts’ lack of effective jurisdiction to try the claim due to the absence of Ukraine’s commercial assets in the territory of Russia. This note will concern itself only with the first of the two objections. Read the rest of this entry…
Non-UN Financial Sanctions against Central Banks and Heads of State: in breach of international immunity law?
Conventional Wisdom Challenged?
Recent years have seen a wide range of non-UN financial sanctions being adopted against States and their instrumentalities, including central banks, as well as against high-level State officials. Prominent examples include the EU and US sanctions against the central banks of Syria and Iran, and the asset freezes against the serving Presidents of Zimbabwe and Syria. In spite of the EU’s firm assertion that its ‘restrictive measures’ “are fully compliant with obligations under international law”, one might be inclined, intuitively, to regard such sanctions as a prima facie breach of international immunity rules (whether or not they qualify as (third-party?) countermeasures is a different story altogether – one which the present post will not touch upon). Thus, given the lack of a general exemption in respect of activities de jure imperii, Castellarin argues that the EU’s financial sanctions against central banks are contrary to State immunity law – a position which is also subscribed to by Thouvenin and Dupont. Others have arrived at the same conclusion in respect of asset freezes targeting Heads of State (see e.g. Pillitu). When discussing the matter with fellow scholars, it seems that the applicability of, and incompatibility with, immunity rules is often taken for granted.
Yet, is this conventional wisdom (if that is what it is) justified? It is quite remarkable to see how, on the one hand, the EU goes to some lengths to insert tailor-made exemptions to asset freezes in order to enable payments to or from diplomatic or consular posts (or exceptions to travel bans to allow officials to participate in international conferences) – even if the practice seems far from consistent –, while at the same time seeing no problems in the imposition of financial sanctions on Syria’s central bank and Head of State. Equally remarkable Read the rest of this entry…
France has never legislated on State immunity to the same extent as the US, UK and other countries. Instead, sovereign immunity under customary international law has been mainly governed by case law, save for two little known provisions: Article 111-1 of the civil enforcement procedures code providing for the principle of immunity of domestic and foreign public entities, and Article 153-1 of the monetary and financial code providing for the immunity of foreign central banks and monetary authorities. Even though France ratified the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of State and their Property of 2004 (UNCSI) with Law No. 2011-734 of June 28, 2011, contrary to Japan, Spain and Sweden, France did not incorporate the Convention into domestic law. The recent decision to incorporate only Articles 18, 19 and 21 of UNCSI on immunity from execution was rather motivated by the fact that, first, the jurisprudence of the Cour de cassation had become unpredictable and, second, the French government was embroiled in diplomatic complications with foreign States. With two Articles of Law No. 2016-1691 of 9 December 2016 on transparency, the fight against corruption and modernising economic activity of December 9, 2016, France has, on the one hand, purported to codify customary law on State immunity from execution, as reflected in UNCSI, (Article 59), a provision portrayed by its opponents as the “Putin amendment” made specifically to respond to the Russian law of 2015 which threatens to deprive foreign states of their immunity if they ignore Russia’s immunity, in particular with regard to seizures made following the aftermath of the Yukos award. On the other hand, it has enacted specific rules on execution proceedings against foreign States undertaken by so-called “vulture funds” as had been the case with the famous NML capital Ltd. v. Argentina litigation (Article 60).
This post will focus on the first of these two provisions, Article 59. Read the rest of this entry…
The UK Supreme Court has resoundingly rejected the contention that state immunity and/or foreign act of state barred courts from hearing claims of UK complicity in abduction and torture. The judgment in Belhaj & Rahmatullah (No 1) v Straw & Ors  UKSC 3 – just one of three “blockbuster” decisions handed down in yesterday’s bonanza- has finally cleared the way for these important claims to be tried.
The facts of the cases are well known (and are set out in more detail in this post on the Court of Appeal’s judgment). In short, Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife allege that UK security services cooperated with US and Libyan authorities in their unlawful rendition in 2004 and their subsequent detention and torture. Mr Rahmatullah, a Pakistani national, was detained by UK forces in Iraq, also in 2004, before being transferred to the custody of US forces, at whose hands he was allegedly tortured. Mr Belhaj was detained by the Gaddafi regime for six years; Mr Rahmatullah was held at Bagram air base for ten years.
There are many striking features of the Supreme Court’s judgment. These include Lord Sumption’s careful discussion of jus cogens; the surprisingly short shrift given to the government’s argument based on state immunity; and the strident dismissal of the argument that UK courts should refrain from adjudicating on foreign acts of state where doing so would embarrass the UK in its international relations (per Lord Mance at (iv)(d)]; Lord Neuberger at ; and Lord Sumption at ). In these brief initial comments, I focus on the doctrine of foreign act of state, which was characterised differently by each of Lord Mance, Lord Sumption and Lord Neuberger (notwithstanding that they agreed in the result).
To the extent that the opinions differ on foreign act of state, it is Lord Neuberger’s view that binds, since he attracted Lord Wilson, Lady Hale and Lord Clarke to his side. So, a majority, but by a hair’s breadth: in their brief, almost parenthetical opinion, Lady Hale and Lord Clarke described Lord Mance and Lord Neuberger as having reached “the same conclusion… for essentially the same reasons”. That word, “essentially”, is capable of masking quite a lot, as the discussion which follows will show. Read the rest of this entry…
South African Withdrawal from the International Criminal Court – Does the ICC Statute Lead to Violations of Other International Obligations?
The relations between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African States have come to a head once again this week with situation now at its lowest point. The government of South Africa has announced (see here) that it is withdrawing from the Statute of the ICC and that it has submitted its instrument of withdrawal to the UN Secretary General in accordance with Article 127(1) of the ICC Statute. Under that provision, the withdrawal shall take effect one year after the date of receipt of the notification of withdrawal (unless the state specifies a later date in the notification). South Africa, which had previously been a strong supporter of the Court, thus becomes the first state to withdraw from the ICC. To add to the sense of crisis, the South African withdrawal follows on from the decision over the past couple of weeks of the President and Parliament of Burundi to also withdraw from the ICC Statute. Although the Burundi Parliament has voted to do this and the President has signed a decree to this effect(see here and here), Burundi does not appear to have, as yet, notified the UN Secretary-General of its intention to withdraw to the ICC. There are fears that other African states will follow suit. [Lost in all of this was the news that, by contrast, another African country, Gabon, referred the situation in that country to the ICC less than4 weeks ago (see here for statement of ICC Prosecutor).]
South Africa’s Reasons for Withdrawal
The South African notification of withdrawal has not yet been released publicly but we have a detailed statement from the Minister of Justice regarding the reasons behind the withdrawal. One of the major grounds on which the South African government justifies its withdrawal is that:
“the Rome Statute [and the domestic Act implementing it] compel South Africa to arrest persons who may enjoy diplomatic immunity under customary international law but who are wanted by the court.”
The government claim is thus that complying with the ICC Statute will cause South Africa to breach its obligations to other states. The Minister suggests that resolving this conflict of obligations is important, because it undermines the ability of South Africa to work towards peaceful resolution of disputes and to promote the important objective of bringing conflicts to an end. The Minister went on to say that: “South Africa has had to do so [arrest people wanted by the ICC], even under circumstances where we are actively involved in promoting peace, stability and dialogue in those countries”. He stated further that:
“We wish to give effect to the rule of customary international law, which recognises the diplomatic immunity of heads of state and others in order to effectively promote dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts wherever they may occur, particularly on the African continent”.
Does the ICC Statute Require States to Violate the Customary International Law of Immunity?
I do not intend to address the broader peace vs justice debate in this post (Is South Africa right to seek to pursue peace over immediate claims to justice in particular situations?) Reasonable minds can disagree on this. However, I wish to question the claim by South Africa that the Rome Statute requires it to violate customary international law of immunity. Read the rest of this entry…
Equatorial Guinea v France: What are the Limits on Prosecution of Corruption-Related Money Laundering by Foreign Officials?
On 14 June 2016, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that Equatorial Guinea had instituted proceedings against France before the Court. Equatorial Guinea’s claims arise from the French prosecution of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea, on charges of corruption-related money laundering. This is the first time that allegations related to large-scale corruption – often dubbed as ‘kleptocracy’ or ‘grand corruption’ – engender a dispute before the ICJ. This post offers an overview of some of the legal issues that the Court may address in the course of this litigation.
Mr Obiang is First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea and the son of the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (who is, incidentally, the world’s longest-serving president, in power since 1979). At the time when the proceedings were brought, Mr Obiang was Second Vice-President in charge of defence and security, having been promoted to his current post on 22 June 2016.
The two statesmen are no strangers to controversy. Allegations of corruption have been levelled against them repeatedly (see, e.g., here and here). In 2014, Mr Obiang surrendered part of his US-based property in settlement of US v One White Crystal-Covered ‘Bad Tour’ Glove et al, an asset forfeiture case brought by the US Department of Justice that involved his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia and real estate. A criminal investigation is reportedly underway in Spain and corruption-related human rights litigation against Equatorial Guinea is pending in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The French investigation against Mr Obiang arises from a criminal complaint submitted by Transparency International France and Sherpa, two anti-corruption NGOs. Their allegation is that he has pilfered the coffers of Equatorial Guinea and invested the proceeds in France. The French authorities launched an enquiry after the Cour de Cassation’s 2010 judgment that confirmed the standing of NGOs to bring criminal complaints. On 13 July 2012, France issued an international arrest warrant against Mr Obiang. As of now, the pre-trial investigation has been concluded and the investigating magistrate shall decide whether to refer the case to court. Mr Obiang’s attempt to invoke immunity in France fell through as the Cour de Cassation ruled that (1) immunity under customary international law is limited to heads of states, heads of governments, and foreign ministers, and (2) at the time of the alleged commission of the imputed offences, Mr Obiang was merely a minister of agriculture and forests.
In another twist of events, in 2011 – that is, after the Cour de Cassation’s 2010 ruling that paved way for his prosecution – Mr Obiang sold his Parisian mansion to the state of Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial Guinea asserts that the property has henceforth formed part of the premises of its embassy to France. Unimpressed by the manoeuvre, the French investigating magistrate ordered the seizure of the building in 2012.
In Equatorial Guinea’s contention, (1) the French criminal proceedings constitute an unlawful interference with its internal affairs because alleged wrongdoing would fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of Equatorial Guinea, (2) Mr Obiang is entitled to immunity from the French criminal jurisdiction, and (3) the seizure of the building is in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961. Read the rest of this entry…
In some ten days the International Court of Justice got three new cases on its docket. First, on 6 June Chile instituted proceedings against Bolivia with regard to a dispute concerning the status and use of the waters of the “Silala River system.” The jurisdictional basis of the case is the compromissory clause in the Pact of Bogota, and the cases raises issues of international watercourses and environmental law.
Second, on 14 June Equatorial Guinea instituted proceedings against France with regard to the immunity from criminal jurisdiction of its Second Vice-President in charge of State Defence and Security, and the legal status of the building which houses its Embassy in France. The Guinean Vice-President is under investigation for corruption offences by French authorities, on the basis that he invested the proceeds of that corruption in France. French prosecutorial and judicial authorities have held that he has no claim to immunity. The building in question was first bought by the Vice-President and then sold by him to the Guinean Embassy; French authorities assert that it is not protected by immunity since it was bought out of the proceeds of the offences for the which the Vice-President in being prosecuted for, and is not part of the diplomatic mission. The jurisdictional basis for the case is the compromissory clauses in the protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
Finally, yesterday Iran instituted proceedings against the United States in a dispute concerning alleged violations of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, and on the basis of the compromissory clause in that Treaty. The case essentially concerns the alleged US failure to respect the immunity of the Iranian Central Bank/Bank Markazi and other Iranian entities, as well as other rights conferred by the Treaty (the Court will not have jurisdiction for violations of customary international law directly, but only insofar as these rules are referred to or assist in the interpretation of the provisions of the Treaty). Enforcement proceedings have been brought in the US against these Iranian entities for Iran’s involvement in terrorist activities; see more on the whole affair the previous post by Victor Grandaubert.