Some Additional Thoughts on the ICJ Advisory Opinion

I’ve read through the main opinion and the other opinions and it confirms my initial impressions during the issuance of the Opinion yesterday afternoon.

On jurisdiction, I was a little puzzled by the length of the discussion on the question of whether the Court should exercise its discretion in relation to the question. It all seemed quite basic stuff, given past case-law of the Court which has generally said that 1) the fact that the Security Council is dealing with something doesn’t mean another organ can’t discuss it and 2) the political dimensions of a question do not prevent a legal analysis. However, some dissenting opinions (Bennouna, Skotnikov, Keith, Tomka) actually thought that the Court should have declined to answer the question.

On the scope of the question, I’m generally not in disagreement with the opinion. Some separate opinions consider that it was too narrow. Judge Simma said it applied too strictly a “tired” version of the Lotus logic that what is not proscribed is allowed. For him, there is a more public law aspect to international law today, and the Court should have done a more thorough search of the relevant law on independence before answering the specific question. Judge Trindade, in a separate opinion 1,5 times the size of the majority opinion, launched himself in a emotional, but in my opinion ultimately irrelevant plea for taking into account “human suffering” as a criteria for independence. Equally, Judge Yussuf thought the Court could have taken the opportunity to define the scope of self-determination in a post-colonial world. Others (Koroma) thought that it was still too broad and that the Court went beyond its powers in considering that when the GA explicitly mentioned the authors of the UDI as the “Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo”, they actually didn’t mean that, and wanted to know who the authors are. I would tend to agree with that actually. The fact, as the Court points out, that this was not discussed in the GA debates, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was an open issue, it might just mean that it was a settled issue. By second guessing the GA like it does, the Court is opening itself to the criticism of why it is re-interpreting the question in this instance, and not in another (for example, by saying that the GA really wanted to know if Kosovo was an independent State).

Which brings me to my main point of contention with the decision: that the authors of the UDI were not acting in their official capacity as Members of the Assembly. The reasoning is just as unconvincing as I thought. The authors of the declaration met in the Assembly, called a special session of that Assembly, and met as the democratically elected representatives of the people in elections set up under the control of the Constitutional Framework, which is the only basis for their right to be present in the assembly to make the UDI in the first place. But they are still considered as private citizens by the Court, based on their intent to be so considered. How can you evaluate whether someone is bound by a legal framework based on the subjective desire not to be bound?
In this sense, I can only agree with Koroma:

5. It is also question-begging to identify the authors of the unilateral declaration of independence on the basis of their perceived intent, for it predetermines the very answer the Court is trying to develop: there can be no question that the authors wish to be perceived as the legitimate, democratically elected leaders of the newly-independent Kosovo, but their subjective intent does not make it so. Relying on such intent leads to absurd results, as any given group ⎯ secessionists, insurgents could circumvent international norms specifically targeting them by claiming to have reorganized themselves under another name. Under an intent-oriented approach, such groups merely have to show that they intended to be someone else when carrying out a given act, and that act would no longer be subject to international law specifically developed to prevent it.

 And Bennouna:

44. The facts that the authors of the Declaration, members of the Assembly of the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo, cited the breakdown of negotiations and that they did not intend to act within the framework of the interim régime of self-government (Advisory Opinion, paragraph 105) do not by themselves change the legal nature of an act adopted by the Assembly of the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo. In law, it is not merely because an institution has adopted an act exceeding its powers (ultra vires) that the legal bond between the institution and the act is broken. In such a case, the institution must be considered to be in breach of the legal framework that justifies and legitimizes it.

45. Similarly, it is not because the Assembly trespassed on the powers of the Special Representative (Advisory Opinion, paragraph 106) by involving itself in matters of Kosovo’s external relations that it must be considered as acting in a different capacity or as an entity no longer related to the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo. Here as well, the Assembly simply committed an act which is illegal under international law.

Although I’m the first one to defend the ICJ against those who claim that it says what it didn’t say, in this part of the decision, i’m struggling to see how the reliance of the ICJ on the intent of the authors of the UDI, and is not an implicit endorsement of the declaration itself.

One final comment on the applicable law. I’ve read in some comments already that the Constitutional Framework and UNMIK resolutions should not necessarily be considered as applicable international law because after all they are intended to take effect only within a particular domestic system of law”. I would actually side with the ICJ on that one. The question is not the setting (all law is meant to be applied in a specific setting), it’s the nature of the norm and the applicable legal order. For me, a territory under UN administration cannot be seen as a national legal order. There’s no “national” at this point, or “domestic”. Moreover, the source of legal, judicial and even constitutional authority in Kosovo clearly derived from a Security Council Resolution. I don’t find it therefore scandalous to conclude that the norms adopted in this context are at least international enough, and sufficiently integrated in the international legal order, to be considered as relevant international law for the ICJ. But I’ll have to consider this “hybrid” issue further in my PhD (forthcoming…).

And to conclude on a little poetic note, showing that law needn’t necessarily be dry, I love the final line of Bennouna’s opinion:

Such declarations are no more than foam on the tide of time; they cannot allow the past to be forgotten nor a future to be built on fragments of the present. 

2 responses to “Some Additional Thoughts on the ICJ Advisory Opinion

  1. Hi,I love your blog. It's the most fascinating one in the IL field. Still did not encounter in a similar one :)I wonder if you have considered writing a piece on the Special Tribunal on Lebanon? All the best,L.

  2. Anonymous, thank you for your support, it's nice to know that someone is reading what I write…As for the STL, I would indeed love to write on this topic, but given that nothing much is going on there…I'll wait for the first indictments.

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