The ICC and immunities, Round 326: ICC finds that South Africa had an obligation to arrest Bashir but no referral to the UNSC

Today, the International Criminal Court issued a decision on whether South Africa was under an obligation to arrest the President of Sudan when he visited South Africa in 2015 in execution of two ICC arrest warrants.

I have blogged extensively about this issue in the past (here, here and here, for example). There have been a number of decisions in relation to this saga in the past few years, 2 notable ones being the decision issued against Malawi in 2011 and the decision issued against the DRC in 2014. These two decisions, while reaching the same result, had different legal explanations to offer and everyone was awaiting eagerly to see if this new decision would follow either of the previous decisions or take a different route.

Before analysing the decision, it should be said that I find it quite pedagogic, clear and easy to follow, even if I disagree with it. I think this should be noted, as both the Malawi and the DRC decisions were, putting aside the substance, quite confused in their drafting.

One should also welcome the fact that this decision was adopted following a actual procedure where all parties were heard extensively, which is also a welcome development.

Let us now move on to the substance, first whether South Africa had an obligation to arrest Bashir and second whether its non compliance should lead to a referral to the UNSC or the ASP.

  1. Was there a duty to arrest Bashir?

It should be noted from the outset, that in my view, South Africa clearly had a duty to arrest Bashir from a purely procedural perspective. Indeed, there have been enough decisions from ICC Chambers calling on the arrest of Bashir in various situations for there to be no doubt as to the obligation of States in that respect. South Africa’s disagreement with all those decisions, while I agree with it on the substance, does not allow it to simply ignore them in the context of the Rome Statute legal framework.

This being said, how does the Chamber revisit the immunity question?

First of all, the decision affirms that there is no rule of customary international law that removes the immunity of sitting heads of State from arrest in relation to international crimes, “even when the arrest is sought on behalf of an international court” (paragraph 68). This quite clearly puts to rest the idea that somehow, using the expression “international court” suddenly magically removed the normal application of international law, an idea that many, including the judges in the Malawi decision in 2011, had defended, based on a more than unconvincing reading of, among other sources, the ICJ Arrest Warrant case.

Second of all, the decision explains at length what is mostly uncontroversial: State parties who have signed the Rome Statute have accepted the removal of immunities under Article 27, and therefore cannot claim immunities as an obstacle for cooperation under Article 98. This is a conclusion reached by everyone until now, but it’s no harm in recalling it clearly in a judicial setting.

The real question is how the immunity of a sitting head of State of a non State Party is removed, and this is where the decision enters murkier waters in my view.

Let’s start with the majority reasoning which focuses on the effect of Security Council referrals. What does the majority say? the core of the reasoning can be found in paragraph 88 of the decision:

The Chamber finds, by majority, that the necessary effect of the Security Council resolution triggering the Court’s jurisdiction in the situation in Darfur and imposing on Sudan the obligation to cooperate fully with the Court, is that, for the limited purpose of the situation in Darfur, Sudan has rights and duties analogous to those of States Parties to the Statute.

As acknowledged by the Majority in the following paragraph: “this is an expansion of the applicability of an international treaty to a State which has not voluntarily accepted it as such”.

This reasoning takes the 2014 DRC decision to the next level: in that earlier decision, while relying on the UNSC referral, the Chamber had not as far as to claim that Sudan had obligation akin to a State party. In that earlier decision, the Chamber has taken a more modest approach, that of an implicit waiver of immunity (paragraph 29):

the “cooperation of that third State [Sudan] for the waiver of the immunity”, as required under the last sentence of article 98(1) of the Statute, was already ensured by the language used in paragraph 2 of SC Resolution 1593(2005). By virtue of said paragraph, the SC implicitly waived the immunities granted to Omar Al Bashir under international law and attached to his position as a Head of State.

Here, the Majority says that once Sudan is considered by a State party through the effect of the UNSC Resolution, Article 27 applies to it, and therefore, just as with State parties, there is no longer any issue of immunity to be considered. In other words, because there is no issue of immunity in the first place, there is no need to consider an implicit or an explicit waiver of it (see paragraph 96).

I have two problems with the Majority’s approach.

First of all, and for more details on my view you can read my article on the issue, while I take issue with the whole UNSC referral mechanism itself, I have even stronger reservations with the idea that the UNSC can make a State akin to a Party to a treaty it didn’t sign. The UNSC might have exorbitant powers within the UN framework under Chapter VII (a statement which could itself be challenged), but it does not, in my view, have the power to set aside general rules of international law, such as the relative effect of treaties. Ultimately, the UNSC is simply an organ of an international organisation.

The sole argument presented by the Majority that “the finding of the majority of the Chamber in this respect is in line with the Charter of the United Nations, which permits the Security Council to impose obligations on States” (paragraph 89) falls in that respect short of a solid legal explanation. When you look at the unique reference in the footnote, it is to a paragraph of the ICJ Namibia advisory opinion recalling the binding nature of UNSC Resolutions on member states. This is not the issue here. Nobody says that the UNSC resolution is not binding, what is at stake is exactly what are the legal consequences of the Resolution. It’s quite surprising that while the decision, as I said at the beginning, is quite pedagogic and takes the time to explain its reasoning, there is no acknowledgment of any counter arguments to its position on such a fundamental issue.

Second of all, and maybe less importantly, I’m not sure the reasoning holds in relation to the first part of the decision. Indeed, the Majority can only say that the consequence of considering Sudan like a State Party is the removal the question of immunities because it said in the first part of the decision that States who sign the Rome Statute, and in particular its Article 27 on the irrelevance of official capacity necessarily agree not to invoke immunities in their original relationships with other States under Article 98(1). Any other interpretation of the Statute would make no sense. What the Majority does not say, maybe for a reason, is that this analysis obviously flows from the idea that States intended the Statute to be operational. Which means that the argument only works because States consent to the framework they themselves designed. And because Darfur did not consent to the Rome Statute, then this argument does not work because you cannot attribute to Darfur even a fictional intent for the Rome Statute to be a coherent text which would allow for the Majority’s understanding of the relationship of Article 27 and 98 in relation to State parties to apply to Sudan.

As a final note on the majority view on immunities, one can wonder how this decision reflects on Judge Tarfusser’s understanding of consistent legal reasoning. Indeed, Judge Tarfusser was on all three immunities decisions, which all have different legal reasonings. He was on the bench in the 2011 Malawi decision which took the customary law approach to the matter (approach ignored in the 2014 DRC decision and explicitly rejected in today’s South Africa decision) and he was on the bench in the 2014 DRC decision which, as mentioned above, clearly took the “implicit waiver of immunities by the UNSC” approach , an approach that is now set aside in the more comprehensive approach in the South Africa decision. This is not the first time this happens, as I’ve pointed out in the past, that Judge Tarfusser adopts (or at least approves as part of the majority) different approaches in different decisions. While one can understand that a Judge changes his mind it would have been interesting to have a clear acknowledgement of this and an explanation of the reasons why.

Moving on to the separate opinion of Judge Brichambaut. I should say that I comment based on the reading out of the decision, because the written text is not available yet. I’ll be sure to change anything here that is not exact based on the written text when it comes out.

[Update: in light of the now available written version of Judge Brichambaut’s minority opinion, I now include some edits to my original post below which are warranted out of fairness to Judge Brichambaut’s position. Out of transparency, I keep my original analysis for the record. Please also note that my more positive take on the minority opinion is in no way due to the fact that Judge Brichambaut was kind enough to quote my article on a couple of occasions… ]

Judge Brichambaut says (at the end but it would have been more logical at the beginning I think) that in light of the conflicting arguments of the Parties in the procedure, he cannot conclude that arguments based on the UNSC Referral or customary law provide an adequate answer on whether Bashir had immunity under international law. On customary law, he makes an interesting point on the fact that States are clearly uneasy in arresting a sitting head of States and that only one State (Belgium) filed submissions in the South Africa proceedings, which shows that there is no clear opinio juris (a term he doesn’t use, but it is what he means I think) for the removal of the immunity for international prosecutions under customary international law.

[Update: the minority opinion explains all of this at length. I do not have much to add. Three things: 1) it’s apparent that Judge Brichambaut has adopted a clear and transparent methodology to address these issues, which makes the reading of the opinion very easy. 2) The discussion is balanced and well documented 3) I particularly like the discussion on whether the involvment of an “international court” changes anything to the discussion, although I would have been curious to know on what side of the discussion Judge Brichambaut actually falls…] 

So what is his legal basis for concluding that South Africa should have arrested Bashir?

Judge Brichambaut’s approach is based on a combined reading of Articles 4 and 6 of the Genocide Convention. According to Article 4: “Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals”. According to Article 6, “Persons charged with genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by such international penal tribunal as may have jurisdiction with respect to those Contracting Parties which shall have accepted its jurisdiction”.

For Judge Brichambaut, article 4 means that States accept the removal of immunities and that because the ICC is an “international penal tribunal” as envisioned by Article 6, the removal of immunity also applies there. Because Sudan and South Africa are both parties to the Genocide convention, the issue of immunities is therefore moot according to him.

There are a certain number of difficulties with this reasoning. First of all, it ignores the fact that Article 6 provides for territorial jurisdiction, not anything resembling universal jurisdiction. So, I find it a slightly too rapid conclusion to say that Article 4 means removal of all immunities under international law automatically in relation to all States.

[Update: in the minority opinion, Judge Brichambaut provides at length his explanation (which is no longer “slightly too rapid”) on why Article 4 should be interpreted as removing immunities for constitutionnally responsible leaders and I must say that it is quite convincing.] 

Second of all, bringing in the “international penal tribunal” question, I think the issue would have deserved more discussion. Indeed, is any international tribunal with jurisdiction over genocide an “international penal tribunal” in the sense of Article 6? This is what the Judge seems to imply, but I’m not convinced. Mustn’t there be at least some explicit mention of Article 6 in the instrument creating a tribunal for it to fit under this Article?

[Update: the minority opinion explains, with reference to ICJ case law, why the ICC should be considered as an “international penal tribunal” for the purposes of Article 6 of the genocide convention. I still believe that formally, some explicit intent to create such a tribunal with reference to Article 6 should be required, but maybe I am being too formalistic…]

Third of all, and perhaps more importantly, this does not solve the problem of Sudan’s lack of consent to be bound by the Rome Statute. There is a missing link in the reasoning of the Judge. Others, like Matthew Gillet, have adopted a similar reasoning to Judge Brichambaut, but have tried to fill this logical gap by referring to the effect of the UNSC referral. I explain here (section 4.3) why this is not entirely convincing, but at least there is an attempt to solve the consent problem. Judge Brichambaut does no such thing.

[Update: In fact, Judge Brichambaut does address the issue by referring to the effect of the UNSC Referral as conferring jurisdiction over the situation in Darfur to the ICC and Sudan’s obligation to accept that under Chapter VII (see paragraph 15 of the minority opinion). As developed elsewhere, I’m not entirely convinced by the argument. More specifically here, I’m puzzled at how Judge Brichambaut on the one hand refuses to draw a definite conclusion on the legal effects of a UNSC resolution when it comes to analysing the approach of his colleagues, but accepts simply that Sudan should be deemed to have accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction simply by reference to Chapter VII. Does that not equally apply to the duty to cooperate?] 

Fourth of all, if Judge Brichambaut were to be right, this would have some interesting procedural consequences. Indeed, if the only reason for removing the immunity of Bashir is the fact that the arrest warrant includes genocide charges, then does it mean that Bashir still benefits from immunity for the other charges (war crimes and crimes against humanity)? I do not see any other consequence of Judge Brichambaut’s approach and I wonder if this is what he had in mind.

[Update: this issue is not addressed in the minority opinion. Maybe an addendum in the future?…]

To summarise on the question of the removal of Bashir’s immunity after this decision: we now have three pre-trial chamber decisions (therefore of same legal value) providing three different legal reasonings for the removal of Bashir’s immunity, plus, as an added bonus, a separate opinion with a fourth approach. In this context, the decision’s claim that “any possible ambiguity as to the law concerning South Africa’s obligations has been removed” is somewhat a little hasty in my view…

2. Whether a referral to the UNSC or the ASP was warranted.

The second question that needed to be addressed by the Chamber was whether, having found that South Africa had not complied with its obligation to arrest and surrender Bashir, it should be referred to the UNSC or the ASP.

The Chamber, using its discretion, finds that it shouldn’t based on two arguments: 1) that South Africa displayed a positive attitude towards the Court in the procedure and 2) that a referral would be pointless in this case because South Africa has now understood and that the UNSC or the ASP would do nothing anyway.

As to the first argument, I fail to see its relevance. It is hypocritical to say that South Africa did not know for sure that it should have arrested Bashir in 2015, at least under the Rome Statute, given the numerous decisions to that effect in relation to numerous States. The slowness of the South African domestic legal processes which was also put forward and accepted by the Judges is not an excuse either, in light of an uncontroversial rule of international law: a State cannot invoke a domestic situation to explain its non compliance with an international obligation.

UPDATE: And I of course forgot to mention the most obvious point: referral to the UNSC or the ASP will indeed not help to obtain cooperation from South Africa… simply because Bashir left the country over two years ago! Which shows the slight absurdity of the whole process…

As to the second argument, While I can buy the idea that maybe South Africa has understood now (only time will tell) I find the second part, that the UNSC or the ASP will not do anything anyway, a little bit puzzling. Of course, I agree with the Chamber’s factual assessment: clearly, a referral to the UNSC or the ASP is pointless because neither body has the spine (to be polite) to take any action against a State. However, the answer as Judges should not be to decline to refer a State and therefore empty Article 87(7) of any effect forever, but to actually refer the State and call upon these bodies to do their job (just as Fatou Bensouda has done with the UNSC over lack of cooperation in relation to Darfur for the past few years).

The Chamber’s reasoning would be a little bit like saying: the ICC is clearly not meeting its expectations as an international institution, particularly in terms of deterrence, so what’s the point of prosecuting anyone anymore? wait… I think I might be onto something here…

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