Some extra thoughts on why the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber acted ultra vires in using the “interests of justice” to not open an investigation in Afghanistan

In my previous post on the decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber to not allow the opening of an investigation in the Afghanistan decision on the basis that it would not be in the “interests of justice”, I claimed:

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, the exercise that the Pre-Trial Chamber did is most likely ultra vires. Indeed, Article 53(1)(c) is very clear that it is the Prosecutor who can decide to not open an investigation in the “interests of justice”. It is only if the Prosecutor makes such a decision, that a Pre-Trial Chamber can review it (Article 53(3)(b)). The only job of the PTC when the Prosecutor requests the opening of an investigation is to determine jurisdiction and admissibility. And the “interests of justice” fall under neither of these categories.

Kevin Jon Heller, over at opinio juris, takes issue with my claim the the Pre-Trial Chamber acted ultra vires in discussing whether the interests of justice did in fact warrant not opening an investigation in the situation.

This is the heart of Kevin’s reasoning, after quoting Article 15(4) and 53(1):

To find that a reasonable basis exists, in short, the OTP must consider (1) jurisdiction, (2) admissibility, and — critically — (3) interests of justice. If there is no jurisdiction or no admissibility, there is no reasonable basis to open an investigation. And even if there is jurisdiction and admissibility, there is still no reasonable basis to open an investigation if the interests of justice counsel against it.

As noted, Art. 15(4) requires the PTC to agree with the OTP that there is a reasonable basis to open an investigation. If the OTP is wrong about any of the relevant considerations — jurisdiction, admissibility, or interests of justice — the requisite reasonable basis does not exist. So I fail to see how the PTC could fulfil its mandate under Art. 15(4) unless it reviews not only jurisdiction and admissibility, but also the interests of justice.

Kevin’s point seems unassailably logical: if there are 3 criteria listed in article 53(1) that the Prosecutor needs to look at in order to determine that there is a reasonable basis to proceed, then, it should follow that the Pre-Trial Chamber’s “control” over the Prosecutor must cover all 3 criteria. Which includes the interests of justice.

Of course, this argument makes sense. But I still stick to my interpretation for several reasons.

Before I explain these reasons, I’d like to indulge in a small (maybe demagogic) digression: Kevin and I rarely disagree on issues of interpretation of the Rome Statute. The few times it has happened in the past few years (like last year on the interpretation of Article 18 of the Rome Statute), it is often because the Statute is at places terribly drafted, with provisions not being very clear, and their articulation not always very obvious, therefore leading to conflicting interpretations, which can nonetheless all be very reasonable. I think this is clearly one of those cases… and as a result, the fact that I am most certainly right, does not actually mean that Kevin is wrong…

So, moving on to my explanation:

First of all, for me, the phrasing of Article 53(1) is key. As Megan Fairlie aptly pointed out to me, it is “oddly written”. It calls upon the Prosecutor to “consider” (interestingly, this seems to allow some discretion, as opposed to other terms which could have been used, such as “determine”, but that is a different discussion) whether:

(a) The information available to the Prosecutor provides a reasonable basis to believe that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been or is being committed;

(b) The case is or would be admissible under article 17; and

(c) Taking into account the gravity of the crime and the interests of victims, there are nonetheless substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.

While (a) and (b) are phrased in positive terms (the Prosecutor considers whether the Court has jurisdiction and whether the case would be admissible), (c) is phrased negatively: that “an investigation would not serve the interests of justice” (as opposed to “an investigation would serve the interests of justice”). Kevin simply ignores this difference in phrasing, but the choice of words has to mean something!

Indeed, this clearly means for me that while jurisdiction and admissibility need to be positively established, the fact that (once determined in a first step that the Court has jurisdiction and that the situation would be admissible, as suggested by the term “nonetheless”) an investigation would be in the interests of justice is presumed, unless the Prosecutor finds “substantial reasons” to the contrary. This is turn would suggest that there is no positive obligation on the part of the Prosecutor to even consider the matter in a request, and therefore no autonomous power of the Pre-Trial Chamber to take up the issue proprio motu.

I do note in that respect that the Prosecutor does in fact devote a handful of pages to the matter in her request to open an investigation. But I would argue that her request would have been perfectly legally valid, even if she had not provided those few pages.

Second of all, it should be pointed out that, technically, if the Prosecutor were to decide to not open an investigation based on 53(1)(c), the issue would never come before the PTC as part of an Article 15(4) determination of a reasonable basis to proceed, because there would logically not be a request put to the Chamber. This is why I believe that, contrary to what Kevin says, Article 53(3)(b) is extremely relevant to the discussion. It states that:

the Pre-Trial Chamber may, on its own initiative, review a decision of the Prosecutor not to proceed if it is based solely on paragraph 1 (c) or 2 (c). In such a case, the decision of the Prosecutor shall be effective only if confirmed by the Pre-Trial Chamber.

As an aside, this is yet another “oddly written” provision because I cannot think of a scenario where a decision not to open an investigation based on paragraph 1(c), will not “solely” be based on that paragraph. Indeed, should the Prosecutor find that there is no jurisdiction and/or that a situation would not be admissible under (a) and (b), it will never move on to (c). On the other hand, if there is jurisdiction and the situation is admissible, the decision not to proceed will necessarily have to be based “solely” on (c).

But the main point here is that, clearly there is a specific procedural framework to deal with 53(1)(c) decisions, which is 53(3)(b), which flows from the actual “negative” formulation of Article 53(1)(c), and which therefore exclusively envisions the possibility for the PTC to review decisions not to proceed founded on the fact that an investigation would not be in the interests of justice. This of course makes sense, because that is how Article 53(1)(c) is actually framed.

Considering all these points, I therefore still believe that the procedural framework around “interests of justice” evaluations is constructed around the fact that it requires an actual negative assessment by the Prosecutor, which would then lead to the only procedural route available under the Statute: 53(4)(b) (because again, in such a case, there would, by definition, never be a request under Article 15).

Finally, I note that there is case law supporting my view. Indeed, as rightly pointed out by Nabil Orena on twitter the Pre-Trial Chamber that authorised the opening of an investigation in the Kenya situation stated that (par. 63):

Unlike sub-paragraphs (a) and (b), which require an affirmative finding, sub-paragraph (c) does not require the Prosecutor to establish that an investigation is actually in the interests of justice. Indeed, the Prosecutor does not have to present reasons or supporting material in this respect. Thus, the Chamber considers that a review of this requirement is unwarranted in the present decision, taking into consideration that the Prosecutor has not determined that an investigation “would not serve the interests of justice”, which would prevent him from proceeding with a request for authorization of an investigation. Instead, such a review may take place in accordance with article 53(3)(b) of the Statute if the Prosecutor decided not to proceed with such a request on the basis of this sole factor. It is only when the Prosecutor decides that an investigation would not be in the interests of justice that he or she is under the obligation to notify the Chamber of the reasons for such a decision, thereby triggering the review power of the Chamber.

Obviously it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right, but it’s interesting to acknowledge this position nonetheless, something that the Afghanistan PTC did not even bother doing.

In sum, I think Kevin asked the wrong question as the title of his post (“Can the PTC Review the Interests of Justice?”) because my point was never that the PTC could not do so. Indeed, my point was questioning when this can be done. And in my humble understanding of the phrasing of the Rome Statute, this can logically only be done after a decision not to open an investigation on the basis of Article 53(1)(c) (because that is the actual phrasing of that provision), and therefore, as an inevitable procedural consequence, never in the context of an Article 15(4) decision because no request to be authorised to open an investigation filed by the OTP would be before a PTC in such a case.

4 responses to “Some extra thoughts on why the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber acted ultra vires in using the “interests of justice” to not open an investigation in Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: EJIL: Talk! – A Neo-Colonial Court for Weak States? Not Quite. Making Sense of the International Criminal Court’s Afghanistan Decision

  2. Stephanie Barbour

    This seems quite right – and is exactly the interpretation previous PTCs took in authorising the the investigations in Kenya, Georgia, and Burundi. One of the most (of the many) troubling things about the Afghanistan decision is the way in which it departs from the previous jurisprudence of the Court, without so much as noting that it is doing so, let alone justifying the departure. We have nary a footnote in the section on the interests of justice, aside from one reference to an OTP policy paper, so it is hard to see what the legal reasoning of the PTC was.

  3. Pingback: 国際刑事裁判所の動向 | 国際刑事法研究 | 竹村仁美 - Takemura Hitomi

  4. Very good article. I certainly love this website. Stick with it!

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