A Commentary on The ICJ Croatia v. Serbia Genocide Case (part I): Some thoughts on an Anti-Climatic Result

On 3 February 2015, the ICJ issued its Judgment in the Genocide claim and counter-claim between Serbia and Croatia and rejected both. Essentially, while finding evidence of the actus reus of genocide (murder, bolidy harm, etc.), directed at croats or serbs, the ICJ could not find evidence of genocidal intent, i.e, the specific intent to destroy in whole or in part a particular group.

As said by Marko Milanovic (here and here) there was no real doubt as to what the final conclusion of the court would be. I think that overall, this case was a complete waste of time and energy and, as astutely noted by Janet Anderson, “Maybe, in the end, only the lawyers win cases like this.”

This being said, reading through the judgment, I noted a number of points I found of interest. I will also devote a separate post to Judge Cancado Trindade’s dissenting opinion which will be posted later.

  • The use of ICTY Practice and case law

Hearing the summary of the Judgment and reading it afterwards, it is striking to note how much it is essentially a digest of ICTY case law, as was the 2007 genocide Judgment in the Bosnia case. This is of course not surprising, as the ICTY has just spent 20+ years documenting this conflict and the commission of crimes during it and making findings on these in lengthy judgments. It would be weird if the ICJ did not take notice of this. Beyond this, two specific points struck me in the Judgment.

First of all, it interesting to note how the ICJ took into account the ICTY Prosecutor’s charging policy, more particularly the fact that he has not charged genocide for a number of senior officials (such as Milosevic) in relation to events in Croatia. Following the logic of the 2007 Genocide judgment, the Court said that this could be taken into consideration, while acknowledging that his was not not necessarily decisive proof that there had not been genocide (Judgment, §187).

This makes sense to me on the face of it. Indeed, the higher up the officials the more link there is between claims of individual responsibility and considerations of state policy that are relevant for the determination of state responsibility. To the extent that one takes the view that charging policy is first and foremost a logical decision guided by available evidence, one can therefore see the logic of the claim that no genocide charge equals no evidence of genocide.

However, Croatia does have a point when it said that charging policy is guided by many other factors than availability of evidence (judgment, §185), for example expediency, the existence of a plea bargain from the accused, or simple preference. The Lubanga case at the ICC comes to mind in that respect, where the decision not to charge anything else than the use of child soldiers says nothing about the availability of evidence in relation to other crimes (such as sexual violence), as the trial process painfully showed. I therefore think that before attributing any weight to a decision not to charge, there needs to be a broader evaluation of the charging practice of the Prosecutor of a given tribunal. In this sense, I think that the ICJ was far more justified in attributing weight to the ICTY Prosecutor’s decision, given the often “everything but the kitchen sink” approach adopted there, than it would have been if it had done the same with the ICC, given the sometimes apparently random or inomplete choices made in relation to charging.

Second of all, there is a discussion on the weight to be given to decisions of different chambers of the ICTY. More particularly, are Trial Chamber decisions more persuasive than Appeal Chamber decisions? This question was important for Serbia’s counter-claim because it obviously wished to rely on the Gotovina et al. Trial Judgment rather that the contested Appeals Judgment which acquitted everyone. Serbia’s reasoning in that respect was the following:

Serbia argued that the findings of an ICTY Appeals Chamber should not necessarily be accorded more weight than those of a Trial Chamber. Indeed, according to Serbia, the members of the Appeals Chamber are appointed at random and vary from one case to another, so that they have no greater experience or authority than those of the Trial Chamber having ruled on the same case. Serbia argues that the main difference between the two benches appears to be that the former consists of five judges, whilst the latter is composed of three judges. Moreover, the decision of the Trial Chamber was unanimous when it convicted Gotovina and Markač, whereas the Appeals Chamber reached its decision to acquit them by a majority of three against two. Serbia points out that, overall, the majority of the judges having sat in the Gotovina case were of the view that the Croatian forces did engage in indiscriminate shelling of the four above-mentioned Krajina towns.

This reasoning was not accepted by the ICJ, the judges considering that:

Irrespective of the manner in which the members of the Appeals Chamber are chosen— a matter on which it is not for the Court to pronounce — the latter’s decisions represent the last word of the ICTY on the cases before it when one of the parties has chosen to appeal from the Trial Chamber’s Judgment. Accordingly, the Court cannot treat the findings and determinations of the Trial Chamber as being on an equal footing with those of the Appeals Chamber. In cases of disagreement, it is bound to accord greater weight to what the Appeals Chamber Judgment says, while ultimately retaining the power to decide the issues before it on the facts and the law.

I must admit that I am of two minds here. From an institutional point of view, the ICJ is right to say that the final word on an issue for the ICTY (taken as a whole) has to logically be the Appeal Judgment. However, the ICJ is not following what the ICTY, as an institution, has to say about something, but rather reading individual decisions produced by the institution in order to help assess the facts. As a result, what should be relevant is whether a particular decision is convincing or not, irrespective of whether it was overturned on appeal, based on standard of proof and evidence which are anyway not relevant for the ICJ’s purposes. In this sense, Serbia’s point on the fact that a majority of equally professional ICTY judges who dealt with the Gotovina case agreed that there was a violation of IHL somewhat more useful than the ICJ thinks it is, because it could, from a probative point of view, tip the balance towards the facts being sufficiently established for the purposes of ICJ litigation.

  • The link between IHL and the Genocide Convention

One question which arose during the proceedings is the link between International Humanitarian Law and the Genocide Convention. More particularly, both Serbia and Croatia seem to have argued that acts which would be legal under IHL could not be considered as acts that would constitute the actus reus of genocide (Judgment, §152). In response to this, the ICJ refused to “rule, in general or in abstract terms, on the relationship between the Convention and international humanitarian law” (§153).

However, later in the Judgment, the ICJ notes that the legality of the shelling of certain Serbian villages by Croatian forces during Operation Storm meant that there was not the required mental element to establish killing as one of the actus reus of genocide (Judgment, §474-475). In this particular case, I think this makes sense: if the willful targetting of civilians is not established under IHL, this means that there is no intent to kill necessary for a particular killing to be considered n actus reus of genocide.

More generally however, I’ve always felt unease at claims that all bodies of law can apply in all contexts (Human Rights Law, IHL, ICL, etc…) and within ICL, that particular acts can be charges as several crimes at the same time (genocide, Crimes against humanity and war crimes) and that individuals can even be convicted cumulatively in that respect. Of course, I can see how technically this would work: if you have a “checklist approach”, you can easily see how one act could in theory tick all the boxes of the elements of different crimes. The problem is that for me, a crime (and probably even more an international crime) is a particular story or narrative, and more importantly in a particular context. The contextual element of the crime tells us the story that conditions our view of the particular acts. If there is a situation of armed conflict and a particular act is linked to that conflict, I think that analysis should prevail over the other legal qualifications.  This does not mean that other crimes (CaH and genocide) could not be committed in an armed conflict. It just means that different particular acts could not fall under the different categories.

  • Enforced disappearances as genocide?

A third area where the ICJ seems to have made some interesting statements is in relation to the link between enforced dissapearances and genocide. Indeed, Croatia claimed that “causing serious mental harm to members of the groups” includes (judgment, §159):

the psychological suffering caused to their surviving relatives by the disappearance of members of the group. [Croatia] thus argues that Article II (b) has been  the subject of a continuing breach in the present case, since insufficient action has been initiated by Serbia to ascertain the fate of individuals having disappeared during the events cited in support of the principal claim.

In response to this, the ICJ said that:

In the Court’s view, the persistent refusal of the competent authorities to provide relatives of individuals who disappeared in the context of an alleged genocide with information in their possession, which would enable the relatives to establish with certainty whether those individuals are dead, and if so, how they died, is capable of causing psychological suffering. The Court concludes, however, that, to fall within Article II (b) of the Convention, the harm resulting from that suffering must be such as to contribute to the physical or biological destruction of the group, in whole or in part.

The Court therefore seems to accept, on principle, Croatia’s argument, even if later on in the Judgment it rejects the application to the present case because Croatia failed to provide any evidence of psychological suffering sufficient to constitute serious mental harm within the meaning of the Genocide Convention (§356). For a more lengthy discussion on the idea, see Judge Cancado Trindade’s dissent (§§296-320). To my knowledge, this is the first time I see this argument mentioned and it is an intriguing one.

To be honest, I find this finding somewhat disturbing, because it not only opens the door to a broadened view of the actus reus of genocide, but more importantly, it imports the notion of “continuing crime” in the genocide question. Indeed, accepting enforced dissapearance as a material element of genocide, even indirectly through the “mental harm” category, means that as long as individuals are not told of the fate of their relatives, the crime (here genocide) could be considered to be ongoing. This would as a result trump any temporal considerations in the application of the genocide convention. Last year, in an article on the Armenian Genocide and the ICC, I rejected the idea of genocide as a continuing crime simply based on the fact that the later generations would still be suffering the consequences of the genocide. By that standard, all crimes could be deemed to be continuing crimes, which makes no sense. The enforced dissapearance approach is a somewhat more subtle version of that which I have my doubts about for exactly the same reasons.

  • Applying Monetary Gold to extinct States?

Finally, moving away from ICL, I was intrigued by Serbia’s claim that the Monetary Gold principle would preclude the Court from making any findind in relation to the now extinct SFRY. Indeed, the Monetary Gold principle, in a nutshell, means that the ICJ cannot make findings in a judgment that might have an impact on the responsibility of another state not present in the proceedings.

I’ve always had my doubts on the exact scope of this principle, but in any case, it certainly does not apply for states which no longer exists because, as put by the ICJ, such state “no longer possesses any rights and is incapable of giving or withholding consent to the jurisdiction of the Court” (§116). If such a an argument were to be accepted, it would mean that no successor state would ever be able to be held responsible for conduct of the preceding State, which is not, as far as I know, the current state of international law today.

  • A concluding thought on the content of the judgment

While the judgment is arguably of reasonable length, one can wonder whether it could not have been much shorter. Indeed, given the finding that the mental element of genocide (specific intent) was absent, what was the legal relevance of spending such a large chunk of the judgment on listing the crimes that were committed? I can see why the ICJ did it of course, it gives the symboblic impression of addressing some of the concerns of the victims, by documenting their suffering, even when rejecting all the claims. But one can wonder whether this is the role of the ICJ from a judicial point of view.

Which brings me to my next post, a critique of some aspects of Judge Cancado Trindade’s dissent, which will follow shortly…

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