The letter by Judge Harhoff alledging that the President of the ICTY, Judge Meron, was acting on orders from the US in recent aquittals, or at least adopting legal positions to support US positions, has received some commentary since it was made public yesterday, from blogs such as this one and EJIL Talk!, but also in the New York Times, where an article reveals that a number of officials and judges at that ICTY share Judge Harhoff’s skepticism and doubts about Judge Meron, to the point where another candidate has come forward to oppose the re-election of the latter at the Presidency. If these claims by the NY Times article are true, it seems that, if anything, Judge Harhoff has opened the floodgates of violating confidential information at the ICTY. Again, I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but it finally gives outside observers something concrete to work with.
But, in relation to the substance, none of the comments I’ve read so far actually bring me any closer to knowing what went on. I’m seeing language typical of conspiracy theories: “hopefully we’ll get evidence, and if there is no evidence, that means that someone is hiding things from us”. It’s a win-win situation for the conspirationists, because evidence either way can be construed as evidence of the existence of the conspiration. Also typical, is that there is a subtle shift of the burden of proof, as if those who don’t buy into the conspiracy have to bring elements to disprove it. That’s not how things should work. How do you prove that a spaceship did not land somewhere in the desert in the 1960s, leading to unhealthy experiments on alien beings?
In light of this, the only reasonable thing to do would be to just stop speculating until something concrete, other than a mere moral bias on the part of the critics (often relying on a somewhat simplistic, if not plainly wrong, analysis of the preceding case law), is revealed.
This being said, and because the temptation is just too big not to continue to debate pointlessly about this issue, I want to just share three thoughts that came up from reading the NY Times article.
First of all, there is the idea that there is a shift towards more deference to the military in the interpretation of the law in recent decisions. That might be true, but I would say that the anomaly was the previous shift away from that. For many years now, Human Rights activists have managed to convince way too many people that International Humanitarian Law was merely a wartime branch of human rights law aimed only at protecting civilians, to the exclusion of any other consideration. But that was never true. IHL has always been a balance between the protection of non-combattants and military necessity. Forgetting the second branch of the balance has led to what Darryl Robinson has perfectly and brilliantly described as the identity crisis of international criminal law. In my view, it is therefore those who orchestrated that shift that had a political agenda, rather than those who would be returning this law to the traditional balance at the heart of IHL.
Second of all, there is this double idea that things didn’t go well in Simatovic, because Judge Picard was not given enough time to write her dissent and because Orie was alledgedly also under influence. These are two different things. The first one is testimony, if true, of the fact that the ICTY has been under pressure, notably from the Security Council, for some years now to wind down its activities through the implementation of a rigorous completion strategy. And commentators have not generally been complaining about that. On the contrary, the ICTY has been regularly faulted for taking way too long to go through the trial process and the judgment drafting. It might be unfair that some judges today have to speed things up because previous generations of their colleagues were moving along at a leasurely pace, but I don’t see the link with the issue at hand. As for Judge Orie, it should be pointed out that he appended to the Simatovic Judgment a rather surprising separate opinion that responds directly to Judge Picard’s dissent and defends the majority judgment. I find this practice a little puzzling, but, beyond that, if Judge Orie was really under external pressure, why would he do that? It is one thing to give in to the pressure in the majority judgment, it is another entirely to go out on a limb to actually write a separate opinion with his sole name on it to defend the majority. This seems to indicate that, whatever one thinks of the majority Judgement, Judge Orie sincerely believes in it.
Finally, I am once again appalled at the narrative being constructed at the moment of the ICTY being a lenient court letting “murderers” get away. That is simply not true. On a long term perspective, the ICTY case law has developed principles that cast the net very wide, rather than very narrowly, through, for example, Joint Criminal Entreprise, command responsibility, or the adoption of rules of evidence that would make any national criminal lawyer laugh and cringe at the same time. Even in the short term, nobody seems to recall that just a few weeks ago, the ICTY found 6 defendants guilty in the Prlic case, with a strong dissent from the Presiding Judge on the lack of evidence of a Joint Criminal Entreprise. Why is nobody talking about that?
At the end of the day, if we strip away the argumentative niceties and the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, there remains a rather mundane, but fundamental dimension on international criminal justice: its bias towards convictions and the blatant disrespect for the rights of the defense and the principle of legality. When I hear certain people talk about international criminal justice, I sometimes wonder why they bother advocating for international criminal courts at all, when they seem intimately convinced that all defendants that will appear before them are necessarily guilty. I would have more respect for these activists if they stopped pretending to have a liberal agenda and clearly stated that we should dispense with the whole masquerade that are international trials to directly go to the sentencing phase, where the bad guys will finally get what they deserve.