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The UK Supreme Court’s Blockbuster Decision in Belhaj

Published on January 18, 2017        Author: 

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 [2017] 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 [11](iv)(d)]; Lord Neuberger at [134]; and Lord Sumption at [241]). 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…

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Filed under: State Immunity, Torture
 

The Supremacy of International Law? – Part Two

Published on June 3, 2016        Author: 

Editor’s Note: This is the text of the 2nd Annual British Embassy (The Hague) International Law Lecture, delivered on 23 May 2016 (part two of two). Part one is available here.

The relevance, engagement and application of international law in the domestic space are addressed explicitly and implicitly multiple times every day in the course of advice given to governments, advice that never sees the light of day and the issue in respect of which the advice is given only very seldom becoming the subject of litigation. In the course of such advice, it may be that the source of a legal obligation binding on the State assumes great importance. The issue may be, for example, whether the Government may be impleaded in this or that court or tribunal on the issue in question. The jurisdiction of the court or tribunal may thus bring with it questions about the relevant applicable law.

More often than not, though, the important question for consideration and advice is not the source of the obligation but rather its content. If compliance with the law, rather than defence against a claim of breach, is the issue, the source of the law is irrelevant. The State, or the Government, will be bound by relevant and applicable obligations of law whether they derive from national law or from international law.

Let me give you a tangible example. In 2009, the then UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, decided that the Government would produce what became known as Consolidated Guidance to Intelligence Officers and Service Personnel on the Detention and Interviewing of Detainees Overseas, and on the Passing and Receipt of Intelligence Relating to Detainees. This exercise emerged from the concern that there was no single, publicly disclosable document that set out how UK military personnel and intelligence officers were to proceed when engaging with foreign States on the question of the detention and interrogation of individuals held in foreign custody.

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The role of legitimacy and proportionality in the (supposedly absolute) prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment: the United Kingdom’s High Court decisions in DD v Secretary of State

Published on December 22, 2015        Author: 

In the United Kingdom High Court (Administrative) decision of DD v Secretary of State for Home Department [2014] (‘DD’) Ouseley J was required to consider, on a preliminary basis, whether the imposition of a Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure (‘TPIM’) (the successor of control orders) had violated the appellant’s right to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’). The decision, and the subsequent appeal decision of Collins J (DD v Secretary of State for Home Department [2015] (‘DD (No 2)’), is significant for what it says about the role of the legitimacy and proportionality of measures when considering whether they are inhuman or degrading. More specifically, the first instance decision of Ouseley J appears to impermissibly balance ill-treatment against national security interests. In addition to this ostensible and impermissible conflation, both decisions rely on the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) jurisprudence to support various findings without properly engaging with the very significant differences between such decisions and the facts of the instant case (especially the difference between detention following conviction and the imposing of TPIMs on individuals based on various degrees of ‘belief’ held by the Secretary of State). Similarly, neither decision considers the potential impact of the principle, regularly restated by the ECtHR, that the alleged conduct of an individual is irrelevant to a consideration of whether article 3 has been violated.

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A New Case on Torture in Europe: Cestaro v. Italy

Published on May 13, 2015        Author: 

In its judgment of 7 April 2015, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that Italy had violated the prohibition of torture in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Cestaro v. Italy, application no. 6884/11).

Apart from its confirmation of the well-established principles of the ECtHR on the prohibition of torture, the judgment is important for at least two other reasons: the in-depth evaluation of the behaviour exhibited by the authorities of the State involved in the affair and, above all, the Court’s statements concerning the structural nature of the problem of torture.

The case concerned events that occurred during the night of 21 July 2001, after the end of the G8 summit held in Genoa from 19 to 21 July 2001 in the “Diaz-Pertini” school used by some demonstrators as a night shelter (for an overview of the serious incidents caused by demonstrators, including some “black blocks”, see also Giuliani and Gaggio v. Italy, application no. 23458/02).

The “substantive” and “procedural” violations of the prohibition of torture

The violation of Article 3 was “dual” in nature: on “substantive” grounds owing to the ill-treatment of the applicant and on “procedural” grounds owing to the lack of adequate investigations and punishment for the officers who were responsible for the acts of torture.

Regarding the substantive violation, the Court found that anti-riot police units had stormed the school and, as the Italian courts and the ECtHR determined, had used force in a totally disproportionate way, with no real justification and completely ignoring the absence of any form of resistance by the applicant (then aged 62) and by the other occupants of the school (paras. 178-180 of the ECtHR judgment). The Court not only criticised the modus operandi of the police officers but also the planning of the whole operation, taking into account that the police officers had not been given any precise indication or instructions on the use of force and its limits. Read the rest of this entry…

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Too Soon for the Right to Hope? Whole Life Sentences and the Strasbourg Court’s Decision in Hutchinson v UK

Published on February 5, 2015        Author: 

Monday’s judgment by the European Court of Human Rights in Hutchinson v UK may have slowed progress towards the goal of ending whole-life sentences in the Council of Europe. That goal appeared to be edging closer after the Grand Chamber’s 2013 ruling in Vinter & Ors v UK, but Monday’s judgment suggests that it is still too soon to speak of a ‘right to hope’ (to use the language favoured by Judge Power-Forde in his separate opinion in Vinter). The court’s Fourth Section held in Hutchinson that the prospect of executive review of the applicant’s sentence (in the form of a discretion exercisable by the Secretary of State to release prisoners in exceptional circumstances) satisfied the requirements of Article 3.

The applicant in Hutchinson was sentenced to life imprisonment upon conviction of burglary, rape and triple murder. He argued that, following Vinter, whole life sentences with no possibility of parole are inhuman and degrading. However, the Grand Chamber’s judgment in Vinter left a loophole, and the court in Hutchinson marched through it. The loophole was the discretion of the Secretary of State for Justice under s30(1) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 to release life prisoners on licence in certain circumstances. In the language of the statute, the circumstances must be ‘exceptional’ and they must warrant release ‘on compassionate grounds’. The Ministry of Justice ‘Lifer Manual’ elaborates further. It provides a list (purporting to be exhaustive) of the grounds on which the discretion will be exercised. They are: where the prisoner is terminally ill; death is likely to occur shortly (a period of three months is mentioned as a guide); appropriate care can be provided outside prison; there is a ‘minimal’ risk of reoffending; and ‘further imprisonment would reduce the prisoner’s life expectancy’. The Grand Chamber in Vinter concluded that ‘compassionate release of this kind’ did not provide a realistic ‘prospect of release’ as required by Article 3 (p45, §127).

That seems straightforward enough, but here comes the twist. The UK had submitted in Vinter that it was possible to read s30 as imposing a duty on the Secretary of State to release a prisoner if detention had ‘become incompatible with Article 3, for example, when it can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds’ (p44, §125). The Grand Chamber accepted that this reading of s30 ‘would, in principle’ comply with Article 3 (p44, §125), and that executive review of a whole life sentence can suffice (p43, §120). However, ‘the present lack of clarity’ for life prisoners as to whether their sentences were reducible (p45, §129) contravened Article 3.  Read the rest of this entry…

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Revisiting the Five Techniques in the European Court of Human Rights

Published on December 12, 2014        Author: 

Ireland v United Kingdom was the first inter-state case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Decided in 1978, it revolved around internment in Northern Ireland and the techniques used by British forces when interrogating internees at the height of ‘The Troubles’. As regards the treatment of the internees, the Court found that the use of the so-called ‘Five Techniques’ amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, but did not meet the threshold of severity to attract the “special stigma” of a torture finding against the United Kingdom. Since then, the Court has confirmed that what constitutes ill-treatment of sufficient severity to be deemed ‘torture’ under Article 3 can be subjected to the ‘living instrument’ doctrine (Selmouni v France), and various scholars have remarked that, should the Court be confronted with the same facts now as it was in Ireland v United Kingdom, a finding of torture would be handed down. Now, following investigative journalism by RTÉ (the Irish national broadcaster), new evidence has come to light that may well test this supposition.

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The United States and the Torture Convention: A Memo from Harold Koh

Published on November 11, 2014        Author: 

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, the United States will appear before the United Nations Committee Against Torture for a discussion of the United States’ Third to Fifth Periodic Reports under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel and Degrading Treatment. If the size and membership of the United States’ delegation to the Committee is anything to go by, the US is taking the session very seriously indeed. The US delegation includes high level representation from the State, Justice, Defence, Homeland Security and other Departments of the Federal Government as well as representatives of states. The dialogue between the US delegation and the Committee will be webcast here.

One key issue that will come up in the discussion is whether the US accepts that the Convention applies to conduct  of its officials and agents beyond its territory. In the list of issues that the Committee presented to the US in advance of the submission of its report (a list that was prepared five years ago now!), the Committee asked the US to:

“Please provide updated information on any changes in the State party’s position that the Convention is not applicable at all times, whether in peace, war or armed conflict, in any territory under its jurisdiction and is not without prejudice to the provisions of any other international instrument, pursuant to article 1, paragraph 2, and 16, paragraph 2, of the Convention.”

In its report, the United States was evasive on the question of the extraterritorial application of the Convention. It stated:

“6.  . . . It should be noted that the report does not address the geographic scope of the Convention as a legal matter, although it does respond to related questions from the Committee in factual terms.”

However, it then went on to note that:

“13. Under U.S. law, officials of all government agencies are prohibited from engaging in torture, at all times, and in all places, not only in territory under U.S. jurisdiction. Under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), Pub. L. No. 109-163, 42 U.S.C. 2000dd (“No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the U.S. Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”), every U.S. official, wherever he or she may be, is also prohibited from engaging in acts that constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This prohibition is enforced at all levels of U.S. government.”

Thus, while the US was indicating that US law and policy forbid torture by US officials wherever committed, it failed to acknowledge that the treaty obligations went this far. The US delegation will no doubt be asked to clarify its position before the Committee. A recent report in the New York Times indicates that there is an internal debate in the US administration about whether to abandon the US’ previous position that that provisions of the Convention Against Torture are restricted to acts on US territory. Apparently, while State Department lawyers are  pushing for a change in this position,

“military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture . . .”

In a recent intervention in this debate, Harold Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School and, Legal Adviser to the US State Department in first term of the Obama Administration, last week, wrote a “Memo to the President: Say Yes to the Torture Ban,” in Politico Magazine. Read the rest of this entry…

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Domesticating the Law of Immunity: The Supreme Court of Canada in Kazemi v Iran

Published on November 7, 2014        Author: 

International lawyers typically think that when a case deals with a matter of international law, once you know the position under international law, then this will give you the answer. Unfortunately, before domestic courts, that is not always the case. Late last month, the Canadian Supreme Court issued its judgment in Kazemi Estate v. Islamic Republic of Iran [2014] SCC 62 (the Quebec Superior Court Judgment was discussed on the blog here). The case, following on the Ontario Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment in Bouzari, serves as a stark reminder that the application of international legal principles in domestic proceedings will frequently be governed or mediated by domestic legislation, which often reflects domestic priorities in addition to international principles. The role that international law should play in such cases, as either a source or a means of interpretation, may be contested. The Kazemi v Iran Judgment is the latest instalment in a series of important domestic court decisions on the law of State immunity.

Background

Ms. Zahra Kazemi was a Canadian citizen and freelance photographer and journalist who died in custody in Iran in 2003, following her detention, torture and sexual assault in prison The authorities refused to return her body to Canada and buried her in Iran. Although a domestic investigation reported links between the Iranian authorities and her torture and death, only one person was charged and he was acquitted after a trial which lacked transparency.

Seeking justice for his mother’s death, Ms. Kazemi’s son, Mr. Stephan Hashemi, sued the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei (Iran’s Head of State), Mr. Mortazavi (Chief Public Prosecutor of Tehran), and Mr. Bakhshi (former Deputy Chief of Intelligence at the prison where Ms. Kazemi was detained), claiming damages for his mother’s suffering and death, and for the emotional and psychological harm that this caused him. Predictably, the defendants sought to dismiss the motion based on claims of state immunity, which is implemented in Canada by the State Immunity Act (SIA). This challenge ultimately reached the Supreme Court of Canada, Read the rest of this entry…

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English Court of Appeal rejects De Facto Immunity for UK officials & Act of State Doctrine in Torture Claims

Published on November 3, 2014        Author: 

Following a number of high profile but ultimately failed inquiries into the UK’s ‘complicity’ in US extraordinary rendition, some further light may be shed on the matter by the UK courts. Such is the significance of the judgment given last week by the English Court of Appeal in Belhaj & Anor v Jack Straw & Ors [2014] EWCA Civ 1394, which reversed the decision of Simon J to strike out claims brought by Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar against a number of UK officials for their alleged involvement in their unlawful abduction, detention and renditions. The claimants alleged that they were unlawfully detained and mistreated in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Libya, and on board a US registered aircraft, by agents of those states. Documents uncovered after the fall of Gaddafi allegedly show the complicity of UK officials in the kidnap of Belhaj and his then pregnant wife, Boudchar, and their rendition back to Libya. In a thorough and careful judgment, the Court of Appeal (Lord Dyson MR, Lloyd Jones and Sharp LLJ) held that the claims are not barred by state immunity and, while they did engage the act of state doctrine, the claims fell within the public policy limitation applicable in cases of violation of international law and fundamental rights.

Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court has been granted only in relation to the act of state doctrine. Whatever the Supreme Court decides to do, this judgment marks another bold stand for the rule of law in the context of events arising from the so-called global war on terror, as well as providing further clarification on the scope of both doctrines.

State immunity: indirect impleader

Seemingly emboldened by the recent decision of the European Court of Justice in Jones v the United Kingdom, the Respondents sought to argue that state immunity may be invoked where, as in the present case, the claims necessarily require findings of illegality in respect of the acts of foreign officials for which they could claim immunity if they had been sued directly. It was argued that the claims indirectly implead the states concerned because they affect their interests and that, accordingly, state immunity applies to bar the claims.

Interestingly, the Respondents sought to derive support for this submission from the reference to both “rights” and “interests” in Article 6(2)(b) of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of State and their Property, which they argued has the effect that a state is indirectly impleaded where its interests are affected in a broad sense. In its judgment, the Court cited academic commentary in support of the contention that the final words of Article 6(2)(b) should be given a limited reading, such that “interests” of states is confined to legal interests as opposed to interests in some more general sense Read the rest of this entry…

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Jones v UK: On analogies and inconsistencies in the application of immunity rules

Published on January 21, 2014        Author: 

Micaela Frulli is Associate Professor of Public International Law at the University of Florence, Italy.

As Philippa Webb and Lorna McGregor have already outlined in their EJIL Talk! Posts, the ECtHR in Jones and Others v the United Kingdom  seems to have based its reasoning on the assumption that State immunity always shields State officials from civil proceedings before a foreign court and, as a consequence, it did not take into consideration the existence of different kinds of immunities accruing to the State and to its officials. The acknowledgment of a complete correspondence between State immunity and the immunity of State officials – and the reconfirmation of Al-Adsani which however only concerned State immunity – is unfortunate precisely because it does not take into account the possible existence or  development of different and autonomous rules regulating the immunity of State officials and the immunity of the State itself, at the very least with reference to cases where international crimes were committed and which entail a dual responsibility, as Lorna has stressed. It is worth fleshing out a few considerations on analogies and inconsistencies in the application of immunity rules in this area.

It is generally agreed – albeit from very different theoretical perspectives – and supported by considerable case-law, that functional immunity cannot apply in cases where State officials have allegedly committed international crimes, neither before a domestic nor before an international criminal court. On the other hand, according to the prevailing opinion (upheld by the ICJ in the Jurisdictional Immunities Judgment), the State on whose behalf the accused official was acting enjoys immunity from the civil jurisdiction of foreign States for the very same crimes. There is an inherent contradiction in the current ‘state of the art’ concerning the application of immunity rules – as underlined by the Institut de Droit International in its Resolution adopted in September 2009. A State official may not invoke official capacity as a defence, justification or excuse in a criminal trial before a competent tribunal of a foreign State, whereas the State on which behalf he or she has acted – that could have tolerated, authorized or even organized the commission of the alleged crime – may call upon respect for its sovereignty not to be subject to civil proceedings before the courts of a foreign State. States always emphasize that domestic courts are not the appropriate forum for adjudicating State responsibility and that immunity from foreign jurisdiction does not absolve States from their responsibility. However, we have witnessed too many cases where no interstate forum was available nor there were alternative avenues for the victims. Read the rest of this entry…

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