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

Written by and

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of when and under what conditions the US will allow the Prosecutor access to Headquarters now that her visa has been revoked. As Dapo Akande has pointed out, the US has previously refused to grant entry to certain foreign officials on the basis of a purported “security exception” contained in the Headquarters Agreement. In light of this “exception”, and emboldened by the apparent success of its coercive measures, the US may attempt to block or impose conditions on the Prosecutor’s access to Headquarters. We argue that the UN Secretary-General should respond by affirming the Prosecutor’s right of entry as an “expert on mission” under the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (known as the “General Convention”). While the General Convention is hardly a panacea for the wider problem of US influence over the ICC, more robust action by the UN could play a role in sustaining the Prosecutor’s independent exercise of her functions.

Duties of the UN under the UN-ICC Negotiated Relationship Agreement

The UN has an important interest in the Prosecutor’s free access to Headquarters. Security Council Resolutions 1593 and 1970, both adopted under Chapter VII, charge the Prosecutor with biannual reporting to the Council concerning the open investigations into situations in Libya and Darfur. The Council has encouraged cooperation with the Prosecutor in the context of the situation in the Central African Republic, and has invited her to address Arria formula meetings. The Prosecutor also attends the Assembly of States Parties (ASP), which under the Rome Statute (Article 112(6)), “shall meet at the seat of the Court or at the Headquarters of the United Nations,” and which is due to meet in New York at the end of 2019.

Moreover, the UN also has legal obligations with respect to the ICC. The ICC is an organization “brought into relationship with the United Nations” per Article 2 of the Rome Statute, which was given effect by the 2004 UN-ICC Negotiated Relationship Agreement and approved by the General Assembly in Resolution 58/318. In addition to a general obligation to “closely” cooperate with the Court, the UN is obliged under Article 18 of the Agreement to “cooperate with the Prosecutor and to enter with the Prosecutor into such arrangements […] as may be necessary to facilitate such cooperation, in particular where the Prosecutor exercises his or her duties and powers with respect to investigation.” In its 2016 Best Practices Manual for the implementation of the Agreement, the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) makes clear that such cooperation includes “assistance with entry and exit formalities.” As the Prosecutor has been targeted in light of her investigatory activities, and as the Prosecutor’s participation at UN meetings is inherent in cooperation, the UN is arguably obliged to make additional “arrangements” to ensure her access to Headquarters and put to rest any doubt to the contrary.

The 1946 General Convention & Article VI “Experts on Mission”

One such “arrangement” would be for the UN Secretary-General to recognize the ICC Prosecutor as an “expert on mission” under Article VI of the 1946 General Convention. While the UN has a vital stake in preserving its long-standing position that the Headquarters Agreement imposes a nearly absolute obligation to grant appropriate visas and allow transit for all persons on official business seeking access to Headquarters, it is advisable for the Secretary-General to develop and maintain a broader scope of legal protections amidst concern about the US invoking a “security exception” to the Prosecutor’s access to Headquarters.

The General Convention, a multilateral convention to which the US is party, implements Article 105(3) UN Charter, which calls for the conclusion of a convention governing “the details of the application” of UN privileges and immunities. On a practical level, one payoff of invoking the General Convention is that it does not contain a “security exception.” Moreover, commentators suggest that States are obliged to accord entry and exit to experts with documentation of their official UN business (see here, para. 50: “[T]he chapeau of Art. VI Section 22, read together with Art. VII General Convention [governing laissez-passer], has been understood to mean that experts on mission enjoy the right of entry and exit”). Obviously, this is all the more the case for entry and exit to Headquarters, where experts are required to report on their missions. In practice, States have relatively rarely (e.g., Myanmar, Israel, and Syria) refused to grant expert access.

Equally important, should the US persist in blocking entry of the Prosecutor, Section 30 of the General Convention allows the UN to request an ICJ advisory opinion, which will be “accepted as decisive.” The UN previously requested opinions in relation to disputes concerning Article VI in 1989 (Mazilu) and 1999 (Cumaraswamy), both of which were decided in its favor. Section 30 constitutes a more desirable dispute resolution mechanism than the somewhat-convoluted arbitration and legal referral mechanism contained in the Headquarters Agreement (described here), since that procedure could be derailed or delayed by US refusal to participate.

But is it possible to consider the Prosecutor an “expert on mission” for the UN? The text, travaux, ICJ jurisprudence, and UN practice suggest it is. The General Convention sets forth three categories of individuals who benefit from privileges and immunities: representatives of Members, officials, and experts on mission for the UN. The first two categories are relatively clear in scope and neither can apply to the Prosecutor. Nonetheless, Article VI, Section 22 liberally designates “experts” as persons “performing missions for the United Nations” who do not fall in the other two categories. “Experts” are entitled to such “privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions during the period of their missions, including the time spent on journeys in connection with their missions.” Although, as the ICJ has observed, the travaux reveal little about the motivation for the inclusion of this provision, the Legal Counsel suggested in his submissions before the Court (see here, para. 57) that this “wide category” was developed in light of difficulties faced by the League of Nations in obtaining privileges and immunities for members of ad hoc committees. The catchall provision was intended to “fill this gap.”

The Secretary-General has previously granted expert on mission status to rapporteurs, advisors, election observers, persons connected with peacekeeping, consultants, and certain participants in UN meetings (see here, Annex I). The ICJ has endorsed this broad application, noting that qualification for expert status “lies not in [individuals’] administrative position but in the nature of their mission.” Experts may be designated in various ways and need not necessarily be remunerated, contracted, or charged with tasks of any particular time-length.

The UN has afforded expert status to persons undertaking activities in furtherance of Security Council resolutions, such as monitoring sanctions regimes, as well as to members of human rights treaty bodies, which are not technically UN organs. In the case of members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), expert status was granted because the CERD Convention advances UN Charter principles, CERD’s functions are similar to those of UN subsidiary organs, and because CERD meetings are held on UN premises (see here, p. 207, and commentary by Bandyopadhyay and Iwata). As one commentator summarizes, expert status is appropriate where “real and continuing” ties exist with the UN.

Notably, in advice published in the 2013 UN Juridical Yearbook, the Legal Counsel even recommended that officials of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), including its Prosecutor, be recognized as enjoying expert on mission status (see here, pp. 384-386). Despite the SCSL’s status as an independent body, this was considered possible under the General Convention in light of the “special relationship between the United Nations and the SCSL” and the fact that “the Security Council has supported the SCSL in a number of ways.” Expert status serves as a gap-filling protection for SCSL officials “when they are outside the countries in which they already enjoy privileges and immunities.” Given the strong relationship between the UN and the ICC, as well as the Security Council’s active interest in several ICC investigations, a similar logic could be applied here: the Secretary-General could grant the ICC Prosecutor expert on mission status wherever she does not otherwise enjoy privileges and immunities under the Rome Statute, such as within the United States.

In sum, the UN should make clear that it is not possible for the US to refuse the entry of the ICC Prosecutor to the UN in New York. The UN and the ICC are inextricably linked as a matter of law, as well as in their respective missions to uphold the UN Charter. As noted by then-Vice President Weeramantry in the Cumaraswamy case, investigators “cannot discharge their responsibilities with the independence essential to free and complete enquiry if they need to keep looking over their shoulder for adverse personal consequences that may ensue from an independent investigation.” As the ICC traverses a period of great strain, the UN should deploy the most robust legal response available, including by granting the Prosecutor expert on mission status.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed


Semir Sali says

April 24, 2019

Dear both,
Thank you for this very informative post. A couple of comments: first, as you may know, the practical relevance of this case is now moot since the State Department has made it clear that the US would not “interfere with travel to the UN for official UN purposes”. This is mostly because the US-UN Headquarters agreement does not allow the host country any second-guessing of who the UN should invite into its headquarters, unless very serious security issues arise.
Second, I am not sure considering the ICC Prosecutor as an 'Expert on Mission' would help if your main concern is, as you point out, access to the UN Headquarters. The ICC is a related UN organization and according to the UN-ICC agreement, the Prosecutor (along with the judges and the Registrar) are entitled to use the Red UNLP (while the staff can use the blue one). The UN has been very selective about issuing UNLPs to individuals without a very close connection to the UN, which is why such categories as Goodwill Ambassadors, consultants and ‘experts on mission’ are instead issued a UN Certificate and not a UNLP. Thus, ultimately, your proposal would potentially ‘downgrade’ the connection of the ICC with the UN with regard to travel.
If then, your main concern is to extend the functional immunity of the ICC prosecutor in the US for investigation purposes, then the discussion might get interesting. The ICC staff enjoys immunity only from states parties to the ICC Statute, the Agreement on its P&I and eventual bilateral agreements. A designation of ICC investigators as UN ‘experts on mission’ would potentially extend their functional immunities to third countries such as the US. However, I would caution against very dangerous move since it could potentially be seen as a clear sign of abuse of P&I from the UN. The SCSL example cannot be used as a precedent simply because the SCSL was co-established by the UN, whereas the ICC is an independent organization with its own P&I agreements.
In sum, while trying to defend the ICC is commendable, sometimes caution is advised. Adopting a position whereby the ICC prosecutor has the status of an ‘expert in mission’ would lead to unintended consequences by, a) downgrading her in terms of travel, and (b) unduly expanding the applicability of the ICC immunities to third countries while simultaneously endangering the UN ones.

Amir Farhadi says

April 24, 2019

Dear Semir,
Very many thanks for your comment and for opening the debate! The questions you raise are on point and have figured in our discussions with former colleagues at various IOs. These are challenges that need to be taken into account, but also make this an interesting "close case" from an academic point of view. A main caveat to our post is that we recognize that this is an innovative approach, our aim is to stir debate around strategies for confronting inappropriate threats to the independence of the ICC.
With regard to the practical relevance of this situation, you are completely right that some media have quoted US officials as suggesting that the Prosecutor's UN travel will not be interfered with. That said, we noticed a pattern of ambiguity on the part of US spokespersons, ostensibly leaving open the possibility of denying the Prosecutor entry in the future in certain circumstances (as we know, crazier things have happened with visas and this administration!). What is more, now that her visa has been revoked, she will need to reapply for single-entry visas for each entry to the US, ostensibly allowing the US to control access on a case-by-case basis (SeCo briefing on Darfur? Go ahead. Arria-formula meeting on Palestine? No luck). One US official was quoted as saying "We recommend that applicants apply as early as possible to maximize the chances of being found eligible." Moreover, US recourse to the purported "security exception" has previously been politicized in situations that posed no actual security threat (e.g. Arafat, certain Iranian diplomats). In addition, should the Prosecutor lodge an appeal of the Afghanistan PTC decision or proceed with the Palestine investigation, the US may ratchet up its "sanctions", as it has threatened to do. Given US proclivity for sanctions, one can easily imagine how this could result in legal process or asset freezing (with practical and legal extraterritorial consequences for third States). Therefore, recognizing expert on mission status would enable the UN to get ahead of these potential actions by extending the Prosecutor's immunity from legal process to non-parties to the Rome Statute.
As to the legal issues you raise, I feel they would not pose as much of a challenge as you describe. First, with regard to LPs, as you point out, ICC officials, just like staff of specialized agencies and some other UN-system organisations, are entitled to carry blue or red LPs, depending on their grade. However, as you know, carrying a UN LP does not afford the bearer, ipso facto, any specific set of privileges and immunities beyond (arguably) the limited facilities provided for in Article VII of the 1946 Convention ("facilities for speedy travel" etc.). For example, a UNESCO employee carrying a UN LP enjoys P&Is under the 1947 Convention, not the 1946 Convention. Similarly, the Prosecutor's red LP signals her high rank, but does not bind States to afford her P&Is beyond those contained in the Rome Statute. Therefore, there would be no "downgrade" by extending her expert on mission status. On the contrary, just like with the SCSL, the expert on mission P&Is would act as a complement to those she already enjoys (in the SCSL case, officials already had P&Is in the Netherlands and Sierra Leone). Moreover, since even bearers of LPs often need UN documentation/certificates supporting their visa applications, there is no reason why the Prosecutor would not be able to rely on an expert on mission certificate in obtaining a visa.
Second, with regard to the SCSL parallel, we agree that the SCSL case was perhaps slightly stronger by virtue of the UN being a party to its constituent instrument. However, as the Legal Counsel noted, just like the ICC, "the SCSL and RSCSL are treaty-based bodies that are not part of the United Nations." As we argue above, Article 2 of the Rome Statute, the Relationship Agreement, 15 years of practice, and various Chapter VII SeCo resolutions all contribute to inextricably linking the ICC and the UN. Almost identical factors were relied upon by the Legal Counsel with regard to the SCSL.
Lastly, I of course agree with you that this would constitute a somewhat bold step by UN standards! Yet, the raison d’être of P&Is is to ensure that those working on behalf of the UN can independently exercise their functions. When a State unapologetically promises to use coercive measures to undermine that independence, relying on P&Is (however creatively) can hardly be qualified as an abuse.
Thank you again for enlivening the debate! It will be interesting to see how this develops.