Some Thoughts on The bombshell Letter by Judge Harhoff at the ICTY

[The follow up of this blogpost is here]

The news has spread since this morning like a virus. A Danish newspaper has revealed the existence of a letter sent to a list of 56 (!) friends by Judge Harhoff, a siting judge at the ICTY, claiming that the recent acquittals at the ICTY (Gotovina, Perisic, Stanicic and Simatovic) are the result of political pressure exerciced by the US and Israel on the American President of the Tribunal, Judge Meron, who in turn alledgedly influenced his fellow judges to increase the threshold of complicity so as to make convictions more difficult.

This letter is obviously incredible and brings up some thoughts on a number of levels.

  • On the actual existence of the letter

First of all, if Judge Harhoff thought that this “confidential” message sent to a select number of his friends would not be made public, it shows a certain naivety. Moreover, one can question the propriety of such a letter. It seems to reveal internal information to the tribunal, in terms of the relationship between the judges that are most likely not meant to be made public.

This being said, the letter is obviously a useful tool for outside observers who rarely have access to publicly available information on the international dynamics within the tribunals, more specifically on the relationship between judges. In that sense, while probably formally improper, the letter is a welcome addition to anyone trying to understand how international criminal justice actually works, beyond the legal discussions on its output.

  • The content of the letter
I will not delve into the actual substance of the debate on the “specific direction” test that is at the heart of the current controversy. Manuel Ventura published his take on this earlier this year on this blog, and the debate has been sparked up over at Opinio Juris, with recent posts by Kevin John Heller and James Stewart. I think it’s ultimately a normative choice, with both sides having legitimate points to make.
I do however think that we need to distinguish the several dimensions of the allegations. 
The first one seems to be that some major powers have been putting pressure on Meron to interpret the law in such a way that some conduct not be regarded as complicity. I must admit that, probably naively, I don’t quite buy it. The case law of these tribunals has, over the past 20 years, adopted a number of expansive interpretations of ICL to expand criminal liability of commanders, whether through the removal of causation in command responsibility or of course the creation of Joint Criminal Entreprise. This case law never bothered anyone at the state department, despite the impact that it could theoretically have on the criminal responsibility of commanders. But of course, if there is any evidence of “specific direction” (pun intended) from some countries to their judges to apply the law in a certain way, this would be contrary to the rule of independence and impartiality of the judges and would arguably warrant sanctions.
A second, somewhat different angle, is that of Judge Meron trying himself to change the judicial policy of the tribunal on those matters. If that is what happened, I don’t see the problem, to put it bluntly. How is this any different than Cassese influencing the judicial policy of the tribunal with Joint Criminal Entreprise? Both have a normative agenda, and I refuse to take sides, on principle, between competing normative agendas, because one of them would be labelled as “moral” (i.e, good) while the other would be labelled as “political” (i.e, bad). The reason nobody was complaining at the time is of course that it is ok to stretch the law and the principle of legality and to have a normative agenda if the result is to put the bad guys behind bars. It suddenly becomes shameful when the result is acquittals. [CLARIFICATION: I’m not saying that I believe that Meron has a political agenda. I’m saying that even if he does have one, I don’t necessarily see the problem. As others have argued (see UPDATE 2 below), the “specific direction” test predates by many years the current cases and it is not at all evident that Meron does in fact have a political agenda].
A third dimension is the alleged influence of Meron on other judges. This for me is the most hypocritical argument made in the letter. Of course judges influence other judges. That is the nature of deliberations and the reality of the tribunals. The history of ICTY benches is a history of some extremely competent people, but also a history of judges with serious deficiencies in character and in competence on issues of international law and international criminal law. Who could seriously claim that Antonio Cassese did not put “pressure” on some of his fellow judges to obtain certain things in judgments? Who could seriously claim more generally that deliberations are perfect egalitarian foras where the perfect legal truth emerges form pure argumentation? All deliberative bodies are the scene of power struggles, personal animosities and friendships which necessarily influence approaches to the substance of issues discussed, back-door compromises and negotiations. I don’t see why ICTY Chambers would be any different. Once again, I did not hear Harhoff complain in the past of the possible intellectual influence of some judges over others.

  • the impact of the letter
It is difficult at this point to gauge the possible impact of this letter, other than getting the little world of ICL commentators excited. In relation to Perisic and Gotovina, I wonder if there is any room for the Prosecutor to request a reconsideration of the Appeals Judgments in light of the allegations by Judge Harhoff. My sense is that, absent specific evidence of lack of impartiality on the part of Meron, this would be bound to fail. Also, it is possible that the Prosecutor will bring these issues up in the Simatovic appeal, maybe to ask for the removal of Judge Meron (and Gunay?) but again without concrete evidence, I don’t see this going very far.
What about the impact on the outside world? Some might think that the legitimacy of the tribunal would be affected by such allegations. I really don’t think so. First of all, the internal workings of the tribunal are, let’s be honest, of interest to only a limited number of Hague nerdish commentators. Second of all, those who already think that the tribunal is illegitimate, will only think that their fears are confirmed. The affected communities never had much faith in the institution in the first place, and I don’t see these new accusations as changing anything. The only community that might be concerned is the community of human rights activists, who, as Judge Harhoff, frown upon anything that might stand in the way of “ending impunity”, be it politics, the rights of the defense or the principle of legality. 
Finally, what could be the consequences for Judge Harhoff himself? I can’t see this being pushed under the rug. He is currently sitting on the difficult Sesejl case, but it is difficult to know if there is any link with the current debate until the judgment is issued. On a general level, there doesn’t seem to be much respect on the part of the judge for the presumption of innocence, as he seems to have preconceived ideas about who should be found guilty or not. More generally, Judge Harhoff has explicitly singled out some of his colleagues and I can’t see how this can make his work at the ICTY possible. A French politician some years ago said that a government minister should either shut up or get out if he disagrees with his government. I’m wondering if this should not apply to Judge Harhoff as a natural consequence of his doubts, whatever one thinks of them.

UPDATE 1: Over at EJIL Talk!, Marko Milanovic thinks that this is the “worst scandal to engulf the ICTY in its history”. I’m really not that sure that it will be and if it really does turn out to be, I think it means that people seriously have their priorities wrong in what they should be focusing on in the work and output of the ICTY.

UPDATE 2: This recent blogpost over at Balkan Insight sheds some light on the fact that if there is a conspiracy theory, the case needs to be made in a far more convincing way given, among other things, the past use of the “specific direction” test in the case law. Ivanisevic argues rather convincingly that what has changed is not the political policy, but rather the fact pattern.

5 responses to “Some Thoughts on The bombshell Letter by Judge Harhoff at the ICTY

  1. I thought this article by Bogdan Ivanisevic more or less settled any serious accusation against Meron. could understand the accusations if the "Specific Direction" standard was first used by Meron. However, it has been in use for over a decade, and he merely confirmed its use.

  2. Given Meron's record as someone who 'fled' Israel and who is quoted by Gorenberg as being the originator of the legal opposition to Jewish civilian residency presence in the areas of the original Jewish national home not under Israel sovereignty based on Geneva 49, why would he knuckle to Israel pressure?

  3. WikiLeaks dispatches covering the period 2002-2004 show that Theodor Meron abused his function as ICTY President and that he revealed all information on ICTY directly to the US Embassy to the Netherlands.The Wiki cables can be found here:

  4. Also, given that the "specific direction " principle, if applied to other cases, would bring to the acquittal of Charles Taylor on aiding and abetting. Seeing also that according to leacked US Government cables the US Government would like Taylor behind bars: how would this benefit the US? Sounds like nonsense to me

  5. Pingback: What ever happened to the Seselj Case at the ICTY? | Spreading the Jam

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