A Molotov Cocktail on the Principle of Legality: STL confirms contempt proceedings against legal persons

cross posted on The Invisible College]

In January 2014, a contempt judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) confirmed an indictment for contempt proceedings which included a legal person, a first for an international criminal tribunal. At the time, I raised some doubts about the reasoning of the judge, who applied a teleological reasoning that essentially allowed him to create law based on his own interpretative preferences. I also did not find convincing the idea that the interpretation of the term “person” for the purposes of contempt proceedings could be different than the interpretation of the same term in article 2 of the Statute of the Tribunal when it came to personal jurisdiction of the tribunal generally.

In July 2014, another contempt judge reversed the first ruling, considering that the term person should be interpreted narrowly in light of the principle of legality and could not include legal persons.

Last week, an Appeals Panel of the STL reversed this latter decision, held, by majority, that legal entities could be covered by contempt proceedings and, as a consequence, reinstated the proceedings against a media company. This decision is very interesting, and problematic, in the way it approaches the question of both inherent jurisdiction and general rules of interpretation and has just entered my top 10 worst argued decisions in ICL. It might even enter my top 3, along with the SCSL amnesty decision and the ICC Malawi decision on immunities.

It would take up too much space here to comment on the decision extensively, but I just want to highlight how the Appeals Panel has found the perfect Molotov cocktail to kill the principle of legality: the “spirit” of the statute combined with inherent jurisdiction.

  • The Spirit of the Statute

First of all, the decision seriously over-relies on what is called the “spirit” of the Statute as a source of interpretation, which, according to the judges, allows for a more “liberal” interpretation of the Rules (para. 27). This leads the judges to blame the contempt judge for interpreting the term “person” in accordance with the letter of the Statute rather than its spirit (!!!). The problem with that is that I don’t know what the “spirit” of the statute is. Trusting judges in relation to this spirit is like trusting the weird looking guy in the tent at the town fair that he can contact the spirit of your grandmother: he basically gets to tell you what he wants…

For the judges of the Appeals Panel, the spirit of the statute, in a nutshell, is the “fight against impunity” for those who obstruct the course of justice, which allows for a teleological interpretation that  includes legal entities. Once they have decided this, the judges look for anything under international law that would not allow them to interpret person in that way… At this point, it’s not even teleological interpretation anymore, it’s backwards reasoning in its purest form!

The Appeals Chamber makes an incredibly broad assessment of international and domestic pronouncements on corporate liability (in general, not necessarily for contempt!) to conclude that nothing prevents the judges from interpreting “person” in a broad way (para. 60).

Even  more amazing, the STL goes through the whole history of ICL where no legal entity was ever prosecuted for contempt or otherwise, but finds it unpersuasive, concluding that section with the extraordinary vague statement that “corporate criminal liability is on the verge of attaining, at the very least, the status of a general principle of law applicable under international law” (para. 67).

“On the verge of attaining”? What a marvelous new source of law. Following the progressive view of the Appeals Panel, I suggest that Article 38(1) of the ICJ Statute now read as follows:

1. The Court, whose function is to decide in accordance with international law such disputes as are submitted to it, shall apply:

a. international conventions, whether general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognized by the contesting states;

b. international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law;

c. the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations;


e. Any norm on the verge of attaining the formal status of any of the above

  • The inherent jurisdiction of the Court

Inherent jurisdiction has always been a problematic issue, useful for creative judges over the years. But surely there has to be a limit to it. The problem is that the way the Appeals Panel uses it makes it extraordinarily large. There are a number of pronouncements in the decision on the (lack of) scope of the inherent jurisdiction of the tribunal, but this one wins the prize for honesty:

When operating within the realm of our inherent power, our jurisdiction remains undefined, only to be determined upon the crystallization of circumstances that call for a judicial pronouncement

In other words, we don’t know what our jurisdiction is, you don’t know what our jurisdiction is, but don’t worry and trust us: we’ll tell you when we get there. This cannot be how jurisdiction (inherent or otherwise) should work, especially in the current case of contempt (i.e, criminal) proceedings.

  • The end of the principle of legality

The problem with everything I have described so far is that we are here dealing with criminal charges, not a innocuous rule of procedure relating to the extension of the number of pages in a brief. Inherent jurisdiction cannot be used to trump the principles that should apply in criminal law matters, notably the principle of legality and its corresponding rules of interpretation: strict interpretation and in dubio pro reo. In that respect, someone should have pointed the judges to Article 22 of the Rome Statute.

In light of this, as pointed out by the dissenting judge, both human rights law and general principles of ICL should have led the judges to consider these basic principles in interpreting the term “person” in the RPE.

  • Some concluding thoughts

First, a logical point: as I pointed out in my previous post on this, for me the interpretation of term “person” in the RPE should necessarily mirror the interpretation of the term “person” in the Statute. If the STL cannot prosecute legal entities for killing Hariri, it cannot prosecute them for contempt. If not, as I said in my previous post and as picked up by the dissenting judge (who forgot to quote me…), the “spirit” of the statute would be that legal entities should not commit the horrendous and humanity-offending crime of publishing a list of witness, but can commit murder, bodily harm and terrorism without being bothered…

Second, a legal reasoning point: as with the first contempt judge who accepted the indictment for legal persons, the Appeals Panel essentially give us reasons why corporate entities ought to be held responsible for contempt. These might be valid reasons, but it’s not their job.

Third,  an argumentation point: the judges refer in an amazingly broad way to the evil that corporate entities can wrought upon the world. And this is just to extend contempt jurisdiction! It seems like overkill to me. What will the first international judge to prosecute a company for genocide be able to say?

Fourth, and finally, an endless point of frustration: the drafters of the STL Statute, in their infinite (lack of) wisdom, still thought it was a good idea to let judges write their own RPE. As a result, the RPE are written by the judges, can be changed by the judges as they please, and then get interpreted by the judges. In this context, it is somewhat farcical to see them pretend to find the higher “spirit” of the Statute, fill 30 pages of analysis of domestic legislation and international pronouncements on the responsibility of legal entities and provide general moral musings on corporate liability in order to divine the true meaning of the word “person”. But, judges wrote the RPE! Adding up pages of argumentation will not bring us any closer to telling us what they were thinking when they drafted the rules on contempt in the first place and answer this ultimately very simple question which seems to have been ignored in the entirety of these proceedings: if they thought that corporate liability for contempt was so important, to the point of it verging on attaining a legal status, why did they not include it, just to make everyone life easier down the road?

In any case, I’m not sure things are over yet. It is now 3-2 for judges who want to extend contempt to legal persons. Not a large consensus. Let’s see what happens next…

Guest Post: What is happening here? Notes of caution on the UNSC resolution on facilitating travel of “foreign terrorist fighters”

By Jens Iverson, Leiden University [Note, this is an expanded version of a brief post on the Leiden Law Blog.  Many thanks to Dov for allowing a fuller post on his excellent blog.]

 On 24 September 2014, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2178 under Chapter VII regarding foreign terrorist fighters.  The UN Security Council is making it obligatory for UN member states to change their domestic criminal law.  The conduct criminalized in the draft text includes attempts to travel abroad “for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training”, gathering funds to assist such travel, or other facilitation of such travel. At least three aspects of such a resolution are noteworthy.

First, one might note that the Security Council has again proven itself to be rather innovative, to put it positively, or imperious, to put it more negatively.  When creating the Security Council’s extensive powers, it is unclear that the framers of the U.N. Charter had in mind such actions as commanding the production of domestic law or, for that matter, the creation of ad hoc tribunals.  These innovations are much more frequent since the end of the Cold War.  It will be interesting to see if they continue.  The commandment to states to issue domestic criminal legislation is remarkable in itself, although not unprecedented – see for example UNSC resolution 1373 (2001), which mandated that those financing, planning, preparing or perpetrating terrorist acts are “brought to justice.”  There is certainly a strong case to be made that certain forms of terrorism are threats to international peace and security, but it is also worth pointing out that if there is an outer limit of legitimate (non-ultra vires) Security Council action, this action is near that outer limit.  Is this the creation of international Criminal Law in domestic fora, not by custom or treaty but by an organ of the UN?  What legislation might be mandated next?  Might not something along the lines of the anti-commandeering doctrine in US constitutional law apply? Continue reading

Is the Salaita situation really about “academic freedom”?

This might not be the most consensual topic to choose after the summer blogging hiatus, but I have been following the affair of the “unhiring” of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois and this has brought to mind a few thoughts. I want to stress from the outset (although this caveat is probably useless, as people will just read what they want in my post, depending on their own views on things), that I am not trying to justify Salaita’s dismissal by the University of Illinois, nor am I defending Salaita. I am just struck by what I perceive as an oversimplification of the situation around the catalyzing expression of “academic freedom”.

For those who haven’t followed, Steven Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois, until a series of tweets regarding the recent events in Gaza were invoked in order to rescind the job offer. This has led to a very heated debate online regarding “academic freedom” and its limits/violation. Some justify what can only be called a firing, while a considerable number of academics defend him under the banner of “academic freedom“, including my friend Kevin Jon Heller.

First of all, I should say that I had personally never heard of Salaita and I am not familiar with his research. I cannot therefore express an opinion on it and I have to assume that his academic research is not an issue here, if not the University of Illinois would not have hired him in the first place. Moreover, apparently Salaita is a very good professor with great student evaluations from his previous jobs. So what his the problem?

Continue reading

Guest Post: Groundhog Day: Accusations of Bias in the Human Rights Council Inquiry on Gaza

By Catherine Harwood, Leiden University

The Human Rights Council (HRC) resolved on 23 July 2014 to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Unsurprisingly, this resolution has fuelled the raging political storm surrounding the conflict in Gaza. The political divide is evident in the results of the vote: 27 states in favour, 1 state against, and 17 states abstaining. The main reason put forward by states that did not support the resolution was that it was biased against Israel. But do these concerns hold water?

The United States was alone in voting against the resolution, explaining that it was a “biased and political instrument” that would “create another one-sided mechanism targeting Israel”. This statement referred to a controversial HRC fact-finding mission into Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Other states also abstained out of concerns of bias in the resolution. The European Union explained that its members abstained as the text was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and prejudges the outcome of the investigation by making legal statements”, and “fails to condemn explicitly the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israeli civilian areas as well as to recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.” The EU does not however consider that the commission holds a one-sided mandate. Some sections of the media take a different view, with headlines such as “UN to investigate Israel’s Gaza offensive” and “UN votes to investigate Israel, not Hamas”.

Are these claims of bias justified? Continue reading

Guest Post: A Matter of Distinction: ‘active’ and ‘direct’ participation in hostilities and the war crime of using child soldiers

By Catherine Harwood, Leiden University

The Rome Statute prohibits the use of children under fifteen years to ‘participate actively in hostilities’ in international and non-international armed conflicts [arts. 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and 8(2)(e)(vii)]. Trial judgments in the Lubanga and Katanga cases interpreted ‘active participation’ broadly to include both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ participation in hostilities. Recently, Pre-Trial Chamber II committed Bosco Ntaganda to trial for charges including the use of child soldiers, and implicitly followed this approach. However, Mr. Lubanga is currently appealing his conviction, including on the basis that ‘active’ participation should be limited to ‘direct’ participation in hostilities.

This contribution argues that in light of the drafting history of the Rome Statute, the current interpretation of ‘active participation’ should be sustained. ‘Indirect’ participation which exposes children to real danger should be prohibited, without requiring a nexus between the activity and loss of civilian protection. This would preserve the intended ‘buffer zone’ of protection, so that children’s participation in risky combat-related activities is prohibited, even when they retain civilian protection.

In practice, the Rome Statute’s semantic inconsistencies, inherited from international humanitarian law (IHL), could be ameliorated by using ‘direct participation’ to denote the general limit of civilian protection, and ‘active participation’ to refer to the use of child soldiers. This approach would also encourage greater consistency between the English and French versions of the Statute.

  • Active and direct participation under international humanitarian law

In IHL, parties to an armed conflict must distinguish between civilians and military objectives, and attacks directed at civilians are prohibited. Civilians lose this protection when they take a ‘direct part in hostilities’ [Additional Protocol I, art. 51(3) and Additional Protocol II, art. 13(3)]. To make matters more complicated, the limit to civilian protection in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions is ‘active’ participation. However, only the English texts contain this irregularity. The term participent directement (direct participation) is used consistently in the French texts, and ‘active participation’ is not recognised.  Nicole Urban suggests that this indicates “a uniform meaning across IHL”, and that ‘active’ and ‘direct’ are synonyms.

‘Direct participation’ is not defined in conventional IHL. The ICRC’s Interpretive Guidance provides a narrow definition which comprises a certain threshold of harm, direct causation of harm and a belligerent nexus [p. 93]. Direct participation generally encompasses activities likely to cause harm to the adversary’s military capacity or operations.

IHL also prohibits the participation of children in hostilities. AP I, art. 77(2) requires that children do not take a ‘direct’ part in hostilities. AP II does not contain any threshold: art. 4(3)(c) simply states that children must not ‘take part’ in hostilities. These rules are identical in English and French texts. The ICRC Customary Rules also articulate that customary international law simply prohibits children to “take part in hostilities”.

Why then does the Rome Statute specifically prohibit ‘active’ participation of children in hostilities, in both French and English? To understand this peculiar phrase it is necessary to revisit the statutory drafting history. Continue reading