On Sunday 17 march 2019, the Philippines’ withdrawal from the Rome Statute became effective, without the country’s Supreme Court having ruled on the domestic legality of the withdrawal (see Priya Pillai here and here).
As noted by Kevin Jon Heller last week, we were all waiting to see if the Court would pull another Burundi-type decision on the Philippines, with a Pre-Trial Chamber authorising the opening of a formal investigation before the withdrawal came into effect.
Yesterday, 18 march 2019, the ICC Prosecutor, through the ICC twitter account, issued the following statement:
First of all, as noted by others, this statement seems to suggest that the OTP has not requested the opening of a formal investigation. It might be interesting to know why this choice was made, but the OTP is unlikely to communicate on this matter.
More importantly, this makes the discussions we were having last year before the Burundi decision on how the withdrawal would affect the Court’s jurisdiction for crimes allegedly committed while the State was still a party to the Statute far less theoretical. Alex Whiting, Kevin Jon Heller, Sergey Vassiliev and myself had all weighted in on the issue.
In relation to that, the Prosecutor claims in her statement that: “Pursuant to article 127.2 of the Statute, and based on prior ICC judicial ruling in the situation in Burundi, the Court retains its jurisdiction over crimes committed during the time in which the State was party to the Statute and may exercise this jurisdiction even after the withdrawal becomes effective.”.
Fatou Bensouda is probably relying on paragraph 24 of the decision to open an investigation in the Burundi situation:
The Chamber finds that the jurisdiction of the Court prior to the entry into effect of a withdrawal must be determined in light of article 127(1), second sentence, of the Statute. This provision stipulates that a withdrawal takes “effect one year after the date of receipt of the notification”. On this basis, a withdrawing State remains, for all intents and purposes, a State Party in the period between the communication of the notification of withdrawal and the end of the ensuing one-year interval. Therefore, by ratifying the Statute, a State Party accepts, in accordance with article 12(1) and (2) of the Statute, the jurisdiction of the Court over all article 5 crimes committed either by its nationals or on its territory for a period starting at the moment of the entry into force of the Statute for that State and running up to at least one year after a possible withdrawal, in accordance with article 127(1) of the Statute.32 This acceptance of the jurisdiction of the Court remains unaffected by a withdrawal of the State Party from the Statute. Therefore, the Court retains jurisdiction over any crimes falling within its jurisdiction that may have been committed in Burundi or by nationals of Burundi up to and including 26 October 2017. As a consequence, the exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction, i.e. the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed up to and including 26 October 2017, is, as such, not subject to any time limit.
There is however a basic problem with this reasoning, which I had already started explaining here: it conflates what are in fact three separate concepts in the Rome Statute: jurisdiction, preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction and exercise of jurisdiction. And this distinction, in my view, has consequences on how we interpret the Statute, in particular when it comes to the effect of withdrawal.
- jurisdiction: this term can be technically applied to three articles in the Rome Statute: Article 5 (material jurisdiction), Article 11 (temporal jurisdiction) and Article 25(1) (personal jurisdiction).
- Preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction: This is Article 12, which relates to two such preconditions: territory and nationality. I know this is somewhat controversial, but technically, territory and nationality are not framed in the Rome Statute as jurisdictional criteria, but as preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction. In that respect, one can note the difference in language between Article 12(1), which states that a State Party “accepts the jurisdiction of the Court with respect to the crimes referred to in article 5” and Article 12(2), which simply States that to exercise its jurisdiction, the Court must verify that the conduct occurred on the territory of a State party or that the alleged perpetrator was a national of a State party (except in the case of a UNSC referral). There is no question here of a State party accepting any sort of territorial or nationality jurisdiction, contrary to the material jurisdiction of the Court.
- Exercise of jurisdiction: this is Article 13 and relates to the trigger mechanisms, i.e, referral of a situation by a State, the Security Council or request to open an investigation proprio motu by the Prosecutor.
The consequence of this distinction is the following: while I’m willing to accept that possibly a State which becomes a party to the Rome Statute accepts the jurisdiction of the Court for crimes committed while it was a State party, I do not believe this extends to acceptance that the Court can exercise jurisdiction indefinitely for these crimes, even after a withdrawal. Because the criteria of Article 12(2) (nationality and territory) are preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction, they need to be assessed at the moment when the Court is considering whether to to exercise jurisdiction. This comes out clearly from the language of the chapeau of Article 12(2): there must first be one of the three trigger mechanism of Article 13, before checking whether territory and/or nationality is an issue. As a result, I would say that verification of whether the conduct was committed on the territory of a State party or was that of a national of a State party happens at the time of the decision, not a the time of the commission of the crime.
One can note that Article 12(2) indicates that the Court can exercise jurisdiction “if one or more of the following States are Parties to this Statute”. The use of the present tense (“are”) seems to suggest contemporaneity with the assessment.
One final argument: the interpretation suggested by the Pre-Trial Chamber, if followed, would have as a consequence to strip of any meaning the last line of Article 127(2) which famously provides that a withdrawal shall not ” prejudice in any way the continued consideration of any matter which was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective”. Whatever the interpretation one adopts of a “matter which was already under consideration by the Court”, what would be the point of such a provision in the first place, if at any time after the withdrawal, the Court could initiate an investigation into crimes allegedly committed prior to the withdrawal?
On balance, I therefore believe that the reasoning given in the Burundi decision and on which the Prosecutor relies on here is based on an unconvincing reading of the Rome Statute and is once again an ill-conceived attempt by the Court to extend its jurisdiction to situations which are beyond its reach.
As a side note, given the complexity of the manner, I would expect more professionalism from the CICC which simply claims that “According to the ICC’s treaty, the withdrawal will not impact any on-going consideration of alleged crimes committed before the withdrawal entered into force.” This is neither the language of the Rome Statute, nor the language of the Burundi decision. This is a situation where advocacy slides dangerously into the realm of misinformation in my view.