Q: On 6 May 2019, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court issued its Judgement in the Jordan Referral Re Al-Bashir Appeal. On 16 May 2019, the Court issued an anonymous Q&A in relation to that Judgment which discussed not only the Judgment, but public reactions to it on twitter and on blogs. What are your thoughts on this?

A: This is quite an extraordinary practice which I have personally never witnessed before. If one must take a positive take on it, one could say that it is a nice example of openness and dialogue on the part of the Court when confronted to criticism.

However, this might be a too optimistic spin. Given the defensive tone of the Q&A and some of the pronouncements contained therein, it sounds more like a petty attempt at stifling criticism of ICC decisions, by attacking those who issued such criticism. Moreover, given these attacks, it is very surprising that they appear in an anonymous document. We should at least know from what organ of the Court this comes from, given that the Q&A format formally suggests some distance between the person asking the questions and the person answering them. At least, all those who expressed vigorous criticism of the Judgment did so in their own name and accept any public scrutiny of their views.

Q: You mention “attacks” against those having expressed criticism of the Judgment, what do you mean by that?

A: Well, to be fair, the anonymous author of the responses does indicate that “There is nothing new, extra-ordinary or wrong about judgments of courts of law generating discussion among those who have a view”. This seal of approval by the Court (or one of its organs?) telling me and others that it is not “wrong” to comment on ICC decisions, as we have done for years now, is a relief because we have collectively been asking ourselves the existential question of whether we should always approve of ICC Judgments, as the earthly embodiment of the will of the international community as a whole and the progressive betterment of mankind.

That being said, some of the comments made in the Q&A do seem to be unnecessary attacks on the professionalism of the commentators of the Judgment. Indeed, the anonymous author of the responses claims that:

In the era of social media, it is hoped that observers would properly study the Court’s judgments and decisions before rushing to comment on them. Hastily made comments, particularly when made before the commentator has even read the judgment in question, will fail to appreciate the totality and nuances of the Court’s reasoning, and may wholly misrepresent the decision or judgment. At the same time, those first comments appearing on social media frequently tend to dominate the ensuing discussion as they are tweeted and retweeted, regardless of their accuracy.

There is much to be said about this.

First of all, this remark suggests that it is inappropriate to comment on the Judgment as it is being delivered in open Court. However, why would that be a problem? One would imagine that the summary of the Judgment, while obviously not authoritative, does reflect what the Judgment says. If the public (which includes the observers) cannot understand the summary without the full Judgment,  or if the summary creates a risk of misrepresenting the Judgment, then why bother with a summary at all?

Second of all, and more fundamentally, it is not for the Court to decide what legitimate commentary should look like. If a person misrepresents a Judgment, it is that person’s problem, not the Court’s. Plus, it is obvious that, under the guise of criticising hastiness, the anonymous author of the response does not have in mind those who immediately defended the Judgment.

Third of all, the anonymous author of the responses seems to have a poor understanding of the dynamics of twitter. Tweets create a unique opportunity for a rich debate about issues. And the exchanges that took place immediately after the Judgment followed exactly this pattern, with numerous discussions ensuing between critics and defenders of the Judgment, and even between critics of the Judgment. The idea that our followers are uncritical sheep is somewhat offensive.

Fourth of all, I would be curious for the anonymous author of the responses to point to even one observer of the Court who retracted their initial views about the Judgment after having read the full text and the separate opinion. If anything, a number of the hasty observers expressed the view that these documents, when considered together, actually created more confusion about the actual Judgment. In fact, if you read the reactions on social media since the Q&A was released, it is very clear that some experts are still confused with the scope and reasoning of the Judgment, several weeks now after it was issued. So clearly, our initial reaction was well-informed enough and our criticism had nothing to do with hastiness or rushing in.

Finally, there is a fundamental lack of self-reflection on the part of the anonymous author of the responses, coupled with a disdain for those who disagreed with the decision. The implication is that we disagreed simply because we did not understand the details (the “nuances”) of the reasoning of the Chamber. Behind the empty claim that disagreement is fine, there is therefore the suggestion that we are, to put it simply, incompetent. Which means that the Prosecutor (who it should be recalled did not even argue for the customary law route), most of the amicus who appeared before the Court, the representatives of Jordan, the AU, the Arab League, the numerous experienced academics and practictioners who criticised the Judgment afterwards are all incompetent.

The anonymous author of the responses goes even further by specifically targetting “lawyers” in a generic way and invoking their professional obligations:

Lawyers engaging in public commentary should exercise particular caution and remain mindful of the cardinal principles that guide the conduct of lawyers, including that of honesty, integrity and fairness. This principle adequately covers the need to be fair when criticising courts and judges. Notably, the rules of professional ethics in most legal systems impose special caution on criticism of judges and courts, not because it is wrong to criticise them, but because they are generally not in a position to respond to specific criticisms. It does not mean that judges and courts may not be criticised. It only means that they be criticised fairly. There is an ethical obligation to reflect facts and circumstances accurately and fairly.

Setting aside the irony of claiming that Judges “are generally not in a position to respond to specific criticisms” in a document where it is exactly what is being done, this passage confuses a commentator who happens to be a lawyer and and a lawyer acting in that capacity before a particular Judge, which shows a misunderstanding of the judicial process. Lawyers are as free as any other observer to comment on judicial decisions and the reference to “professional ethics” can only be interpreted as an inadmissible veiled threat of sanctions in case of criticism of a Judgement that might not be considered as “fair” (whatever that means). It is nothing less than a threat to freedom of expression.

Q: But doesn’t the remainder of the Q&A demonstrate how some observers misrepresented the Judgment, by responding to some of the criticism?

A: Indeed, the anonymous author of the responses engages in a weird dialogue with the critics in relation to the substance of their disagreement with the Judgment. However, on these points, the answers given are far from satisfactory.

You will have noted that the anonymous author of the responses clearly misrepresents the Judgment in the first page of the Q&A. Indeed, it is claimed that:

The Appeals Chamber decided that the Pre-Trial Chamber’s finding that Jordan had failed to comply with its obligation to cooperate with the Court was correct: Jordan should have arrested Mr Al-Bashir when he was on Jordanian territory and surrendered him to the ICC. The Appeals Chamber essentially confirmed the Pre-Trial Chamber’s interpretation of articles 27(2) of the Rome Statute as well as of the effect of UN Security Council resolution 1593 (2005) on Sudan’s position vis-à-vis the Court, which had led the Pre-Trial Chamber to this conclusion.

However, the Appeals Chamber made an important addition: it clarified that, in any event, Mr Al-Bashir did not enjoy immunity as a Head of State vis-à-vis the ICC under customary international law, including in respect of an arrest by a State Party to the Rome Statute at the request of the ICC. Thus, the Appeals Chamber added an additional pillar on which the conclusion that Jordan should have arrested Mr Al-Bashir rested. The Appeals Chamber’s decision in this regard was unanimous.

When you read this, you have the impression that the main point of the Judgment was the discussion of the UNSC justification for the removal of immunities and that the customary law discussion was a mere, albeit important, addition. An afterthought so to speak.

But that is not what the Judgment does. It deals with the customary law issue first, claiming that is it the central and most important question raised in the appeal. It is even the first key finding of the Judgment. The Appeals Chamber went out of their way to make put this issue at the heart of the appeal, despite the fact that it was not even on appeal in the first place, but now, faced with the criticism, is trying to minimise that aspect. If that is not misrepresentation, I don’t know what is.

Q: Ok, but what about the other answers given in the Q&A? 

A: Well let’s take as an example, the anonymous author’s discussion of the distinction between jurisdiction and immunity. I feel compelled to reproduce it in full (sorry for your readers, anonymous interviewer), in order to avoid being accused of misrepresenting it:

This is an erroneous understanding of the Appeals Chamber’s judgment. It was specifically recognised in the Joint Concurring Opinion of four out of the five judges (incorporated by reference in the main judgment) that immunity and jurisdiction are not the same thing. The judges wrote that there is no immunity before an international criminal court in its exercise of ‘proper jurisdiction’ does not mean the court in question has that ‘proper jurisdiction’ to begin with. The existence of jurisdiction depends on its own source. Since customary international law is not known to confer jurisdiction on international courts, it means that the jurisdiction of an international court is prescribed in a written instrument. If that instrument is a treaty, then that treaty binds only those that are party to it. The Rome Statute is a treaty that binds the parties to it. But the written instrument that prescribes the jurisdiction of an international court can also be a Security Council resolution adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, such as was the case here. In conclusion, it was made clear that in the absence of applicability of the Rome Statute or the presence of Security Council resolution, the ICC would have no jurisdiction. All this was actually made very plain in the Joint Concurring Opinion.So, if there is no jurisdiction to begin with, the question of immunity from that jurisdiction does not engage. But, when there is jurisdiction -as in this case, through a combination of Security Council resolution and the Rome Statute -and there is claim of immunity from it, then it becomes necessary to examine the basis or source of that claim of immunity.

First of all, you will note the apparent contradiction in the first two lines: how can it be an erroneous understanding of the Appeals Judgment when the explanation for the Appeals Chamber’s position (the distinction between jurisdiction and immunity) was not even in the Judgment, but in the separate opinion? If it was key to the understanding of the Judgment, why was it not in it?

Second of all, the Q&A claims that this separate opinion is incorporated by reference into the main Judgment. But how can a separate opinion signed by only four of the five Judges be incorporated in a unanimous Judgment? the fact that the fifth Judge refused to sign the separate opinion must mean that she did not agree with it. If she had, it would not be a separate opinion, it would be the Judgment itself. So there is a logical flaw in claiming that the whole of the separate opinion should be considered to be part of the Judgment.

Of course, you could argue that the specific paragraphs of the separate opinion which are referenced in the Judgment can be considered to have been approved by the five Judges. But this presents a problem on this particular issue: the paragraphs of the separate opinion where the jurisdiction/immunity distinction is discussed (par. 447-449), which are essentially the paragraphs summarized in the Q&A, are actually never referred to in the main Judgment, so can they be deemed to have been incorporated by reference in the Judgment?

Third of all, putting this minor incorporation problem aside and looking at the substance of the argument, it seems to state the obvious while not responding to some observer’s concerns at all. Our concern was that the Appeals Chamber’s reasoning would allow two States who individually could not arrest a sitting head of State because of his immunity (even for international crimes, even under universal jurisdiction principles) could confer jurisdiction on an international court for international crimes (by a bilateral treaty for example) and this would magically remove head of State immunity, the joint venture between the two States being able to do what the States separately could not do. In our scenario, the international tribunal in question would have jurisdiction, conferred by treaty. So responding to that by saying that the issue of immunity does not arise if the international tribunal has no jurisdiction in the first place is completely beside the point.

As an aside, one could even question whether the author of the Q&A/the authors of the separate opinion are not confusing jurisdiction and the exercise of jurisdiction. Indeed, it could be argued a UNSC referral is a trigger mechanism allowing the Court to exercise jurisdiction, but does not as such grant the ICC jurisdiction. Of course, to accept this, you would have to follow my oft-repeated analysis that Article 12 is not a jurisdictional provision, but if you look at the title of the Article you can see that…

Q: Sorry to interrupt, but you’re starting to confuse everyone now… let’s get back on track. You just mentioned the ambiguous status of the separate opinion in relation to the Judgment. In the Q&A, it is said that this is not unusual. How do you respond to that?

A: Most of those who raised this issue  have been following, studying, practicing ICL for years even decades. Some of us are even experts specifically in the analysis of separate and dissenting opinions. So to be given a lecture on the nature and function of separate/dissenting opinions is somewhat insulting.

Of course, over the years, there have been a number of quirky separate opinions in ICL (in Katanga for example, the two Judges from the majority wrote a joint concurring opinion (so concurring with themselves) which was in fact a response to the dissenting opinion to the Judgment). But these practices remain rare and difficult to justify.

In the present case, it is perfectly legitimate for an observer to wonder exactly why a large chunk of the separate opinion (for example relating to the nature of UNSC referrals, the nature of international tribunals or the case law relating to the customary law status on immunities) is not in the main Judgment and what to do with a 190-page separate opinion written by 4 of the 5 Judges of the Chamber in a unanimous decision.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions on such short notice. Do you have any final thoughts on the Q&A?

A: Clearly, this Q&A has taken everyone by surprise. Reactions I’ve seen on the maligned twitter network suggest quasi-unanimous lack of understanding at what exactly the authors of the Q&A were trying to achieve. The Q&A leaves this uneasy impression of being both condescending (using a tone you might reserve for a small child) and childish (it’s not fair…).

I also wonder why now, about this particular decision. Because honestly, on the scale of criticism, the reaction to the Immunities Judgment pales in comparison to the reaction to the decision not to open a decision in the situation of Afghanistan, which was shredded immediately after it came out. Yet the Q&A document for the Afghanistan decision is very basic, just one page simply presenting the findings of the PTC. Where is the positive defence of that decision, which constitutes a decision by the Court? Where is the explanation of why the Afghanistan decision is fantastic and simply misunderstood? Where is the chastising of all those nasty commentators who criticised it hastily? Could it be that this time, it involves the Appeals Chamber, rather than a mere Pre-Trial Chamber? If true, this would mean that the “Court” is more willing to go out on a limb to defend certain Judges rather than others, which should not be the case.

Overall, I don’t see how this is a good communications strategy on the part of the Court. This defensiveness and aggressivity gives out an impression of weakness and nobody will change their mind based on the Q&A. As someone wise told me today, silence in such cases should always be the default option. I’m of course incapable of taking this advice, against my better judgment, but maybe the ICC should consider it seriously.


  1. Dear Dov,

    very well written evaluation of the Q&A document, I could not agree with you more, as practically the same issues as you presented here bugged me when I first read the Q&A. I wonder whether the Court will clarify exactly to whom the statements made in the Q&A belong.
    It is also worth pointing out that on prof. Akande’s post on ejil.talk, the official spokesperson and head of the public affairs unit of the ICC also engaged himself in the comment section below the post. Whether he did so in his official capacity or not remains, however, unclear.
    Nonetheless, the Al Bashir case has been a exciting roller coaster so far and I believe we are are in for a similarly thrilling “conclusion”.

  2. Pingback: Shooting the Messenger? A response to Kip Hale’s call for the ICC community to engage in self-examination | Justice in Conflict

  3. Pingback: Shooting the Messenger? A response to Kip Hale’s call for the ICC community to engage in self-examination | Spreading the Jam

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