I have long had conversations with people about the issue of trials in absentia and have generally encountered scepticism. This question arose again recently (if indirectly) in the Karadzic decision to appoint standby counsel for the defendant should he decide to continue to “obstruct the proceedings” and prompts me to share some views on the matter.
I would like to point out from the start that I’m not defending that trials in abstentia are a perfect solution or even generally preferable to having trials in the presence of the accused. That would be preposterous. Of course the rights of the defence will be better protected (at least in theory) with the accused present. What I’m arguing is that the practice should not be excluded ab initio as a procedural tool in some situations. Most international institutions have excluded it and I think that’s a mistake.
for one, I have alway been unconvinced by the Human Rights arguments for their total rejection. For Human Rights lawyers, the practice is considered contrary to fundamental human rights. I don’t think so. None of the international Human Rights documents explicitely prevent this practice, to the best of my knoweldge. The European Court of Human Rights has in fact said that “Proceedings held in an accused’s absence are not in principle incompatible with the Convention“, but imposed some strict conditions; such as the obligation to inform the accused, the right to appeal and be represented by counsel or the right to fresh assessement of the charges. Other international institutions have considered this issue and, although they show caution about the practice, they don’t clearly ban it.
In fact, I think this is another case where the human rights hegemonic discourse is trying to wrap in universality what is a question of legal culture. Common law jurisdictions will generally be more unlikely to suppport this practice, given the importance of the adversarial procedure. On the contrary, the civil law inquisitorial system, where the judge has considerably more power in exercising control over the proceedings, makes the practice less objectionable.
Despite this, most international tribunals don’t provide for trials in absentia. There is only a possibility of removing a defendant from the proceedings if there is too much disruption or if he has waived his right to be present. There are however two interesting exceptions to this trend. First of all, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is the first international tribunal to explicitely allow trials in absentia. This is of course due to the influence of lebanese civil law on the drafting of the Statute and indicates that claims suggesting its total ban are not entirely justified. The second exception, which is not really one, but does relate to the issue, is the possibility in the Rome statute for the confirmation of charges hearings to be held in the absence of the accused, “when the person has: (a) Waived his or her right to be present; or (b) Fled or cannot be found and all reasonable steps have been taken to secure his or her appearance before the Court and to inform the person of the charges and that a hearing to confirm those charges will be held” (Article 61(2)). This allows the proceedings to continue despite the continued flight of the accused and is a symbolic step in holding “someone” accountable, and, from a political perspective, to put pressure on states to arrest the person under indictment.
Which brings us to our final considerations. Once established that trials in absentia are not in fact contrary to international law, under certain procedural conditions, why argue in their favour from a policy point of view? Those who are opposed to them usually put forward the argument that it will decredibilize the international tribunal by giving an impression of unfairness and bias agains the accused. That is certainly true in theory. It is considerably more satisfying for the image of justice in the eyes of the victims and the world community to actually see the defendant in the dock.
However, it is not a totally satisfying argument.Indeed, for one, even when the Defendant is present, the extreme politisation of these international trials anyway creates a manichean debate with supporters and detractors of international tribunals not budging from their position, whatever the reality. The practice itself of the tribunals, as illustrated by the recent Karadzic fiasco, shows that the perception of bias will exist irrespective of the presence of the accused.
Finally, I believe that there comes a tipping point where the interests of justice and efficiency outweigh the desired situation of having the defendant present. Indeed, once everything has been done to secure the presence of the accused and sufficient time given for his arrest, does the institution really lose more of its credibility by just waiting and showing the world how powerless it is, or by starting the trial anyway, with the required guidelines being satisfied? Given the extremely symbolic nature of international prosecutions, I’m not sure it would be more detrimental to the reputation of the ICC, for example, to start the trial of the remaining LRA leaders (provided the complementarity principle has been correctly applied), rather than have to announce one day that they’ve in fact all be killed by government forces (or, more likely, that they killed each other…) and that there will never be a trial.
There comes a moment where some process is probably preferable to no process at all. I don’t provide here an answer to when exactly that might happen, but the option should at least be on the table.
PS: You might be wondering who the “guest”, in the “guest post” is… in fact, there isn’t any guest, I just thought it looked very professional, like all the other blogs who get some prestigious academic or practictionner to comment on various issues… that might happen in the future (please contact me should you wish to contribute), but given today’s topic, I find it quite fitting to have a guest post in abstentia…