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…