ICC Pre-Trial Chamber rejects OTP request to open an investigation in Afghanistan: some preliminary thoughts on an ultra vires decision

Normally, I wouldn’t post on a Friday evening, but, in the interests of justice, I feel compelled to do so for once.

Indeed, earlier today, Pre-Trial Chamber II rejected the Prosecutor’s request to open an investigation in Afghanistan. This was a much awaited decision which will undoubtedly create a lot of controversy.

The timing of the decision itself is interesting. Compared to other such decisions, it took an incredible amount of time to be issues: nearly 17 months. Reading through the decision, it is difficult to understand why this took so long. Indeed, most of the decision in relation to jurisdiction and admissibility is quite uncontroversial and there does not seem to be any particular practical difficult in dealing with the various issues rapidly. This timing, mere weeks after the ramping up of US hostility towards any investigation which might relate to US nationals, will inevitably raise suspicions as to whether the Judges gave in to outside pressure. Whether this is true or not, the impression that this sends out is bound to be negative in this respect.

Moving on to the decision itself, there are a few noteworthy points I’d like to briefly raise.

1. the scope of the “situation”.

The Pre-Trial Chamber found that:

More specifically, the precise width and breadth of the Prosecutor’s power to investigate are to be determined on the basis of the scope of the Chamber’s authorisation: the Prosecutor can only investigate the incidents that are specifically mentioned in the Request and are authorised by the Chamber, as well as those comprised within the authorisation’s geographical, temporal, and contextual scope, or closely linked to it.

[…]

The filtering and restrictive function of the proceedings under article 15 further implies that the Chamber’s authorisation does not cover the situation as a whole, but rather only those events or categories of events that have been identified by the Prosecution. To conclude otherwise would be tantamount to equating the authorisation to a blank cheque, which would run against the very rationale of article 15 and thus defeat its underlying purpose. The authorisation sets the framework of the probe; investigation on incidents not closely related to those authorised would only be possible on the basis of a new request for authorisation under article 15, with a view to allowing the Chamber to conduct anew its judicial scrutiny on all relevant requirements, including jurisdiction, complementarity, gravity and interests of justice.

This approach by the Pre-Trial Chamber seems extraordinarily restrictive of the powers of the Prosecutor during a formal investigation: if she hasn’t mentioned particular incidents in her request to open an investigation, then she cannot deal with them, even if new evidence comes to light once the formal investigation has started. This is problematic for many reasons.

First, the whole point of a formal investigation is that the OTP will finally have concrete investigative powers (which include obligations for State parties to investigate), which will allow it to seriously collect solid evidence. It is not until the investigation is conducted that the Prosecutor can know what crimes can be proven or not.

Second, it transforms “situations” into a series of investigations in incidents and collapses it into “mini-cases”, which I don’t think is the nature of a situation. I do believe that the Prosecutor should have discretion to select the cases it feels it has the strongest evidence for, within the situation, in order to move forward to the next phase.

Third, this decision creates an unjustified practical distinction between an investigation in a situation following a proprio motu request from the OTP (which is subject to a PTC decision) and an investigation following a referral from a State or the UNSC (which is not subject to a PTC decision). The trigger mechanism should only affect how an investigation is opened, not how it is subsequently conducted, which should be the same for all situations. If the PTC were to be followed, this would not be the case.

2. The relevance of Article 98(2) agreements.

The PTC found that:

Furthermore, as to the Agreement of 30 September 2014 between the United States and Afghanistan pursuant to article 98, requiring the consent of a sending State to surrender a national of that State to the Court, the Chamber concurs with the Prosecution that agreements entered into pursuant to article 98(2) of the Statute do not deprive the Court of its jurisdiction over persons covered by such agreements. Quite to the contrary, article 98(2) operates precisely in cases where the Court’s jurisdiction is already established under articles 11 and 12 and provides for an exception to the obligation of States Parties to arrest and surrender individuals.

I would tend to agree with this point. For me, Article 98(2) agreements are not relevant for the determination of the existence of jurisdiction of the Court, and only become relevant later on in the proceedings, as a possible obstacle to the arrest and surrender of individuals.

I do know that there is a counter-argument out there, to the effect that these agreements are relevant to jurisdiction in the following way: even if Afghanistan is a State party, it cannot be deemed to have transferred to the ICC the capacity to exercise criminal jurisdiction over persons when it could not itself, due to that Article 98(2) agreement, exercise such criminal jurisdiction. I think this argument, while interesting, takes too rigid a view of the nature of the delegation of powers from State parties to the ICC, which is a general delegation, not a specific one in my view.

3. The territorial scope of a situation.

One interesting aspect of the request to open the investigation was that the Prosecutor brought in the question of torture of Afghan nationals at CIA “black sites” in various European countries, all State parties to the Rome Statute. The PTC does not deal with this in a very adequate way (par. 51-55), by claiming that 1) the person must be captured on the territory of Afghanistan and 2) that some of the torture must take place on the territory of Afghanistan. Not only does this seem to be a very restrictive view of the application of IHL rules, but it seems to exclude the possibility of a “multi-territorial” situation. Indeed, even putting the territorial scope of the non-international armed conflict aside, one could make an argument for crimes against humanity having been committed, with a policy implemented over several territories. I don’t see what legal obstacle there would be in doing that.

4. The “interest of justice” argument.

And now we come to the obvious main point of the decision: the fact that the PTC, despite finding that the Court has jurisdiction and that the situation would be admissible, decides to reject the OTP request based on the “interests of justice”. Several remarks on this need to be made.

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.

This is extraordinary to say the least, and is one more step in the slow erosion of Prosecutorial discretion that the judges are slowly implementing in the past few years, as in the Comoros and the Bangladesh decisions.

Second of all, the criteria used by the PTC to determine why the opening of an investigation would not be in the “interests of justice” are equally extraordinary. I cannot quote the full 3 pages that the Judges devote to this, but here is just a taste:

subsequent changes within the relevant political landscape both in Afghanistan and in key States (both parties and non-parties to the Statute), coupled with the complexity and volatility of the political climate still surrounding the Afghan scenario, make it extremely difficult to gauge the prospects of securing meaningful cooperation from relevant authorities for the future, whether in respect of investigations or of surrender of suspects; suffice it to say that nothing in the present conjuncture gives any reason to believe such cooperation can be taken for granted.

[…]

Furthermore, the Chamber notes that, in light of the nature of the crimes and the context where they are alleged to have occurred, pursuing an investigation would inevitably require a significant amount of resources. In the foreseeable absence of additional resources for the coming years in the Court’s budget, authorising the investigation would therefore result in the Prosecution having to reallocate its financial and human resources; in light of the limited amount of such resources, this will go to the detriment of other scenarios (be it preliminary examinations, investigations or cases) which appear to have more realistic prospects to lead to trials and thus effectively foster the interests of justice, possibly compromising their chances for success.

Three conclusions can be drawn from the Court’s reasoning :

a) States should be as vocal as possible about their opposition to the Court and their absence of will to ever cooperate with it in order to make sure no investigation is opened in a situation. I usually leave the realist political analysis on the broader impact of the ICC to more competent people, but this is an absolutely terrible message to send, in the context of the opening of an investigation!

b) The PTC have transformed themselves into the financial comptrollers of the budget of the OTP and how it is spent, which is definitely not their role. The Budget of the Court, and more particularly the budget of the OTP, while of course a major issue generally, should not have any concrete impact on actual judicial proceedings. Indeed, it leads to the balancing of legal considerations, which should be the only relevant considerations inside the courtroom, with extra-legal management considerations. This decision is a very visible example of such a balancing exercise, but it has not been absent of the case law in the past on other issues (for example in relation to ordering video-link testimony in lieu of live testimony or in relation to the translation of documents in the proceedings). The Judges seem to confuse their role as managers of the legal proceedings with a role of managers of the funds of the Court.

c) This reasoning transforms the Judges at the PE phase into fortune-tellers about what cases have a more likely chance of going to trial in the future. But of course, they give us absolutely no indication of what criteria they have in mind for that! Of course, the implication of the decision is that only situations where the suspects are easy to catch and the evidence is dumped, gift-wrapped, on the Prosecutor’s lap should be investigated. But this cannot be acceptable legal criteria because, as noted before, it would reward uncooperative States and this would exclude all the difficult cases where the ICC, arguably, is expected to be present.

One final point on this. The Chamber concludes with the following thoughts on the victims:

It is worth recalling that only victims of specific cases brought before the Court could ever have the opportunity of playing a meaningful role in as participants in the relevant proceedings; in the absence of any such cases, this meaningful role will never materialise in spite of the investigation having been authorised; victims’ expectations will not go beyond little more than aspirations. This, far from honouring the victims’ wishes and aspiration that justice be done would result in creating frustration and possibly hostility vis-a-vis the Court and therefore negatively impact its very ability to pursue credibly the objectives it was created to serve.

I actually agree with that statement, in terms of creating unrealistic expectations for victims of a situation, as I’ve said countless times on this blog. However, what the Judges fail to see, is that this argument, if accepted, could arguably lead to never opening an investigation in any situation, ever. Indeed, the ICC is structurally incapable of satisfying the expectations among affected communities, in relation to the recognition of their individual suffering and even less so in terms of actual reparations. This is an extraordinary moment of lucidity by the Judges of the limitations of the ICC, which could logically have led them to drop the mic and leave the stage.

All in all, this is probably one of the most dramatic case of “sawing the branch we’re sitting on” anyone has ever seen in an international tribunal decision…

I would expect the OTP to try and appeal this decision. However (and thank you to my friend and colleague Joe Powderly for pointing it out), because the basis of the decision is arguably neither an issue of jurisdiction nor an issue of admissibility, there is no automatic right to appeal and the Prosecutor will need to seek leave to do so under Article 82(1)(d). I wonder what the odds of the Judges having issued the decision granting leave to appeal it….

[UPDATE: Kevin Jon Heller has a post up already on this question of appeal here. We share the same skepticism on this issue, but I think Kevin is wrong to say that Article 82(1)(d) does not apply because it applies “to specific cases and proceedings, not to situations”. 82(1)(d) applies to all decisions that do not fall under the other three categories, whatever the phase of the proceedings. This has been a consistent practice of the Court to date. For example, quite relevantly, the current appeal procedure in the Comoros situation was triggered following a 82(1)(d) request for leave to appeal (see here and here). This is clearly a comparable situation (no pun intended…) and I don’t see why 82(1)(d) would not apply.].

Gadafi admissibility decision: the ICC probably gets it right on amnesties, but for entirely wrong reasons

Last friday, 5 april 2019, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court rejected the admissibility challenge filed by the Defence team of Saif Al-Islam Gadafi. I’ll let you read the decision itself to get a full picture of the procedural history, but, in essence, Gadafi is claiming that his case is no longer admissible because he was tried (in abstentia) and convicted for the same conduct which is the subject of the arrest warrant at the ICC. Gadafi also claims he was released on the basis of an 2015 Amnesty law (an English version of the law can be found here).

There are a number of interesting points to discuss in this decision which I’m sure other people will pick up on.

For example, I continue to disagree with the idea that the burden to prove all relevant aspect of the admissibility lies exclusively on the State or person challenging the admissibility of a case. For me, the burden should be split: the challenging party need only prove that the case is being investigated or prosecuted and it is for the Prosecutor to prove the alleged unwillingness or inability of that State.

Another example is the impact of a trial in absentia in relation to the finality of a judgment for the purposes of the ne bis in idem principle. First of all, I find that  the decision is not very clear on this point. On the one hand, the Judges seem to suggest that if the person is finally brought into custody, there is an automatic retrial: “According to the Libyan national law, once the person is arrested, his trial should start anew » (par. 48). On the other hand, the Defence seems to be saying that a retrial is only an option triggered by the Accused himself (see par. 55). Second of all, one can wonder to what extent it is good judicial policy to base the ne bis in idem analysis on hypothetical procedural developments, based on hypothetical future events. The admissibility assessment should be made based on the factual reality at the time of the decision, and the decision can be revisited should this factual reality change. If not, no case will ever be admissible because there will always be a hypothetical risk that something might happen (a revision, a retrial, etc.).

The main point I would like to comment on now is the question of amnesties. I know that academics are often criticised for a sort of egocentric impulse to quote their own work. Generally, I do not understand this criticism. We work hard on our research, on which we are judged professionally. Why should we not refer to it? Moreover, there are times, all too rare, when we develop a theoretical idea which turns out to have a real practical impact. In such cases, referring to our own work becomes even more relevant. And this decision is such a case for me.

Indeed, in 2012, I published a book chapter in a volume edited by Larissa van den Herik and Carsten Stahn (The Diversification and Fragmentation of International Criminal Law) entitled « Puzzling Over Amnesties: Defragmenting the Debate for International Criminal Tribunals » (see here for the first draft on SSRN). In that paper, I analysed the approach taken to amnesties in a number of international tribunals, more particularly international criminal tribunals and proposed two findings which I think are relevant here:

1) Contrary to what a number of commentators were saying at the time and still are today, I claimed that it was highly unlikely that an amnesty would ever be considered a valid reason to find a case inadmissible. Indeed, as a court founded on a criminal justice model, the ICC is for me quasi-ontologically incapable of considering mechanisms other than criminal law mechanisms. Whatever the political and societal benefits that one could see in some amnesties (a position I personally share), the ICC is not a court of political legitimacy (an assessment which the Judges are not equipped to make in any case). This conclusion is confirmed by the actual language of the Statute itself, where complementarity is explicitly defined in relation to « national criminal jurisdictions ». I therefore believe it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for an amnesty to ever be accepted by the ICC. So, in this sense, I’m not surprised by the outcome of the Gadafi decision itself.

This being said, in my chapter, I had mostly considered amnesties in an isolated manner, not in combination to other procedures, notably the actual conduct of a trial. But I do not think this changes my analysis. Indeed, how is an amnesty following a conviction not literally technically a way of « shielding the person concerned from criminal responsibility »? I’ve seen commentators on twitter lament the fact that the majority confused amnesties and pardons. But I personally don’t see how the technical term used changes anything, so I’d be happy to hear more about this.

2) In my chapter, I explained that international criminal courts are not courts of legality of domestic legislation. They are tasked with determining whether laws enacted by States are in conformity with international law or not. When you apply this to amnesties, it mean that when the issue comes before them, they have to determine to what extent such amnesty is relevant procedurally, not determine whether this amnesty was adopted in contravention to accepted international norms relating to the duty to prosecute. More particularly, in the context of complementarity at the ICC, this means that the only thing that a Chamber needs to do is identify whether an amnesty is opposable to the Court in the context of an admissibility challenge. The advantage here was obvious: have international criminal judges stick to their function. Indeed, a strict finding that such amnesty is not procedurally relevant should require neither a determination that the amnesty was legally problematic neither a finding that the amnesty was politically illegitimate. As I noted in the conclusion of my chapter, it is “entirely possible to ascertain that amnesties for crimes within the jurisdiction of an international tribunal should not be recognized, while still leaving open the question of the validity in international law of that amnesty, or its political legitimacy ».

As a consequence of this, I obviously think that the majority in the Libya decision followed the wrong methodology in assessing the amnesty that Gadafi might have benefited from. They did not need to fill pages upon pages with other decisions that pronounced on the legality of similar amnesties, because that was not relevant for the admissibility assessment.

In the reasoning of the majority, one sentence struck me as problematic: « The Chamber believes that there is a strong, growing, universal tendency that grave and systematic human rights violations – which may amount to crimes against humanity by their very nature – are not subject to amnesties or pardons under international law » (par. 61).

I’ve always been irritated by Judges talking about « tendencies » when it comes to the content of the law (the same goes for other similar expressions, my favourite being that something is a « crystallising » norm). Their job is to determine the content of law as a judicial organ, not comment on a hypothetical law formation process.

You might say that I’m ignoring the very nature of customary law formation by saying this. But the judges themselves never explicitly situate themselves in such a discussion: they never even mention customary law (except in quoted excerpts from other courts and tribunals) and at no point conclude on the customary law status of the alleged prohibition of amnesties.

Instead, they use the very convenient trick of referring to Article 21(3), which asks Judges to interpret the Statute consistently with internationally recognised human rights. However, this is flawed because the Judges are not technically interpreting anything here, let alone the Statute. They are pronouncing on the international legality of a domestic amnesty law. I doubt this is the purpose of Article 21(3).

As a concluding point, I note that the majority’s developements on amnisties would appear all the more theoretical given that there appears to be some confusion about whether Gadafi in fact benefited from the amnesty law at all.

Indeed, the Defence claims he did (admissibility challenge, par. 26). However, the decision itself claims, based on what the Libyan authorities told the ICC, that Gadafi has not in fact benefited from this law because the crimes he was charged with were explicitly excluded from the law. Moreover, nothing seems to indicate in the decision itself that Gadafi benefited from the law for the crimes falling within the ICC arrest warrant. If that is the case, and more importantly, if this is what the majority believes to be true, it’s not entirely clear why they embark in the discussion on the legality of the amnesty at all.

It would not be the first time that Judges at the ICC bring in an irrelevant « sexy » issue in a decision, maybe to make themselves feel like they are contributing to the greater good of international justice rather than being perceived as boring technicians of international criminal procedure. But by refusing to accept what they are, and seeing themselves as something else, some international judges sometimes comes dangerously close to not actually doing what they were elected for, to the detriment of all Parties involved and, ultimately, to the ICC itself.

Some thoughts on the legal consequences of the Philippines leaving the Rome Statute

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:

D19aBxxWoAMkR6d.jpg large

 

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.

 

 

ICJ Chagos Advisory Opinion: UK asked to end its administration of the islands but the colonizer still wins…

The ICJ issued yesterday an advisory opinion on «LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE SEPARATION OF THE CHAGOS ARCHIPELAGO FROM MAURITIUS IN 1965 » in which it finds that the “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago » and that « the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible».

Here are some brief comments on 1) the decision by the ICJ to exercise discretion and 2) the substance of the opinion.

In terms of the exercise of discretion to issue the advisory opinion, I must say I have sympathy for the view expressed by a number of States during the proceedings, and which can be found in the views of Judges Tomka and Donaghue, that this advisory opinion is a way to circumvent the fact that the United Kingdom and Mauritius have a bilateral territorial dispute and that the UK has not consented to having it settled in a contentious manner by the ICJ. Of course, one can regret that international law still works on the evil consent-based system, but that’s the way it is.

The main opinion tries to get around this problem by claiming that « the issues raised by request are located in the broader frame of reference of decolonization, including the General Assembly’s role therein, from which those issues are inseparable » (par. 88). However, I don’t see how this changes anything. The reality is that the Judges have found that 1)  Chagos is part of Mauritius (although they don’t actually say it in explicit terms directly) (par. 174) and  2) the UK’s continued administration of the archipelago « constitutes a wrongful act entailing the international responsibility of that State » (par. 177), thereby essentially providing an « answer » to the bilateral dispute between the two States.

The rationale behind the possibility for the ICJ to decline to exercise jurisdiction to give an advisory opinion is the following: « The discretion whether or not to respond to a request for an advisory opinion exists so as to protect the integrity of the Court’s judicial function as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations » (par. 64).

I don’t see how the judicial function of the Court is not affected here. Indeed, let’s imagine that the UK were to consent to the contentious settlement of their dispute before the ICJ now. The questions raised would be exactly the same ones, and Mauritius would not be seeking to obtain different conclusions. This means that we now have 14 out of 15 judges who have expressed their opinion of the substance of the matter. How is the judicial integrity of the court not affected? It would be fun to read the motion for recusal of the whole ICJ Bench though…

On the substance, I find the opinion a little underwhelming (although my more experienced colleagues in the field will no doubt chastise me for not finding it revolutionary). The key findings occupy less than 10 pages and can be summarised as follows: 1) the law on self-determination was customary law in 1965 essentially because UNGA Resolution 1504(XV) is really, really important 2) because the Treaty of Paris of 1814 says that the Chagos Archipelago is part of Mauritius, the Archipelago should have stayed with Mauritius when it became independent and 3) therefore, the UK’s continued administration of the Archipelago constitutes an internally wrongful act.

There is nothing very surprising here  for me.

Putting aside the vagueness of the discussion on customary law formation, it is cheap to claim that the « right to self-determination » is customary because there is, in my view, no real clarity in its content. Some « peoples »  can self-determine, others not, some self-determination processes can lead to formal independence, others not. «  Self-determination of peoples »  is a nice concept, a catchy slogan but legally pointless in my view because of its too many ambiguities, which nobody wants to solve because of how politically sensitive they are. Interestingly, the Court is very careful to put the discussion in the context of decolonization, even if it claims that « the Court is conscious that the right to self-determination, as a fundamental human right, has a broad scope of application » (par. 144). Claims to « self-determination » are an amazing option in the lawfare toolbox, but it should not be confused with a conceptually and legally sound notion.

Also I am a bit puzzled by the reasoning of the Court on the status of the Chagos islands. Essentially, they rely on the fact that from 1814 onwards, the Chagos Archipelago was always referred to as part of the « dependencies of Mauritius » or as part of the « non self-governing territory » by the UK. In other words, it is the arbitrary decision of the colonial power to lump together islands 2000 kilometres apart (who probably did not know the existence of each other at the time) that is the basis of the whole decision. That is somewhat ironic: the coloniser still wins. That does not look like self-determination to me but rather like a sort of estoppel (« you told me this was mine, you cannot take it away! »). True self-determination is asking the Chagosians what they want. But even if that might formally give an accurate indication of what should happen, their opinion today is obviously shaped by the colonial history of slavery and displacement. As a result, even genuine claims to « self-determination » are essentially victories for the former colonizers because the latter are the ones setting the framework (and the language) for dealing with their own past conduct. But I’m straying off topic somewhat…

Unsurprising and unsatisfactory: ICC Pre-Trial Chamber orders joinder of Yekatom and Ngaissona cases

Yesterday, Pre-Trial Chamber II at the International Criminal Court ordered the joinder of the cases against Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona. There was little doubt that this would happen for any follower of the proceedings, but this does not make the outcome satisfying both in terms of the process followed and the legal framework applied.

1) The process

In relation to the process, the circumstances in which the decision was rendered are more than problematic for two reasons in particular:

  • On 4 February 2019, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona’s Counsel filed a request to withdraw, indicating his incapacity to treat the case “diligently”. On 7 February 2019, the Pre-Trial Chamber decided that the withdrawal would only take effect on 12 February 2019, after the filing of the Defense submissions on the joinder. So basically, the Pre-Trial Chamber forced a lawyer who admitted himself his incapacity to deal with the case to file observations on a fundamental issues that could affect the entire conduct of the proceedings for years to come, instead of postponing the process to allow the new Counsel to properly assess the situation and file observations. This is incomprehensible. It will be interesting to see if the new Counsel for Ngaissona will make a point of providing observations on the issue for the record or not.
  • According to the filing by Alfred Yekatom’s Counsel, they have not even received  an unredacted version of the arrest warrant against Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, the OTP requests for arrest warrants against both suspects and the evidence supporting those requests, let alone received a document containing the charges. How could the Defense teams provide any kind of meaningful observations in those conditions?

If this is the attitude that this PTC is going to adopt throughout the process in relation to the exercise by the Defence of their right to participate actively in the proceedings, it is quite worrying.

In that respect, I noticed that throughout the decision, the PTC refers to the suspects solely by their last name (“Yekatom” and “Ngaissona”), not “Mr”, not even their first name. I obviously have not read every filing at the ICC, but I would say that this is unusual practice. This might seem like a detail, but I find that this shows a notable lack of respect for the suspects.

2) The Law.

The reason that the outcome of the decision is unsurprising is that the Pre-Trial Chamber essentially follows the Katanga and Chui precedent. However, this does not make it any more legally convincing today than in 2008. Indeed, the Katanga and Chui precedent is far from convincing from a legal point of view and should not have been followed. It would be too long to explain all the reasons why in detail, I will propose just a few quick thoughts.

But before that, a small caveat: my point here is not to express a normative opinion on the theoretical desirability for Judges to be allowed to join cases during the confirmation of charges process. There are probably, as always, good reasons for and against such a possibility.

My point is more basic: the Rome Statute does not legally allow for such a joinder and the Katanga and Chui and now Yetakom and Ngaissona precedents are unconvincing in that respect. why?

To start with the most obvious point: the PTC in Katanga (as the current PTC) never explained how provisions on joinder explicitly contained in Article 64 relating to the powers of the TRIAL chamber can somehow magically be considered to be applicable by the Pre-Trial Chamber. There isn’t any more clarity in the 8-page (of which only two are operative!) Appeals Judgment on joinder in the Katanga and Chui case. The reasoning of these chambers is a little hard to follow, but there seems to be two main arguments made:

a) The fact that the provisions on joinder are included in the part of the Statute that regulates the “Trial” (rather than the confirmation phase) does not ” does not preclude joint proceedings at the Pre-Trial stage, but rather supports the general rule that there is a presumption of joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly”. This is rather strange reasoning. first of all, how can the explicit inclusion of a provision in the “Trial” Part of the Statute (just as Rule 136 is explicitly in the “Trial Procedure” chapter of the RPE) logically be proof that it can be applied in other phases? it does not make sense. Second of all, the reasoning is very obviously circular: there is no “general rule that there is a presumption of joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly” in the Statute or the RPE, this is invented by the Judges based on their own interpretation of the first sentence of Rule 136, despite the fact that Rule 136 also only seems to apply to the “trial procedure” (see below on this). They cannot then pretend that they didn’t just do that and say: “look, we’re right, Rule 136 supports the general rule”. Essentially, what the Judges are saying is: “Rule 136 supports the general rule we just invented based on our reading of Rule 136, so this means we can interpret Rule 136 as applying in pre-trial, which in turn supports the general rule we just invented based on our interpretation of Rule 136…etc.”. This is obviously not satisfactory.

b) All these Judges pretended to apply the Vienna Convention in order to “interpret” the Rome Statute and claimed that their interpretation of the Statute allowed them to advance the “object and purpose” of the Statute. But this is in my view a dishonest application of the “object and purpose” idea in order to ignore what the treaty actually says. Judges can claim that they were just “interpreting” the Statute, but they are essentially rewriting the Statute, which is obviously beyond their mandate. Whatever one thinks of the Rome Statute and its inadequacies (which are numerous and I never shy away from pointing them out), this does not mean that the Judges get to ignore what they don’t like.

Moving on to my second, related, point: how can there be a joinder of “charges” (as per the explicit language of Article 64(5) of the Rome Statute), when the charges are not even known because the Prosecutor has not even filed a Document containing the Charges? The language of the Statute is clear: you need to know what the charges are before you join them. One could even argue that joinder of “charges” can only happen in relation to “charges” actually confirmed by a PTC. This interpretation would be consistent with the fact that power to join charges is only granted to the Trial Chamber, i.e, after the confirmation of charges phase.

And finally a last point: the whole reasoning of the PTC in Katanga and Chui followed here by PTC II in fact revolves around their interpretation of the first sentence of Rule 136 which provides that “Persons accused jointly shall be tried together”, and which led the Judges to consider that this ” establishes a presumption for joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly”. There are a number of problems with this “presumption of joint proceedings”: 1) as noted before, Rule 136 applies to the trial phase, not the confirmation of charges phase. Therefore, the term “tried” should be interpreted restrictively to apply to the actual “trial”, not generally to “proceedings” 2) along the same lines, “accused jointly” does not necessarily mean “accused jointly by the Prosecutor“, but whose charges have be joined according to Article 64(5). This interpretation finds support in the French version of the Rules which provides that “Les accusés dont les charges ont été jointes sont jugés ensemble”. This clearly indicates that there should first be a joinder of charges, before a presumption of a joint trial can be considered.

Of course, you could say that I am being a little unfair with the PTC. It’s not this PTC’s fault that there is precedent for what they decided and it should not be controversial for them to follow this precedent. However, with the Rome Statute having celebrated its 20-year birthday last year, it is time for the ICC to grow in maturity and move away from the practices that tarnished its image as a credible legal institution during its youth, rather than reproduce the same mistakes. Otherwise, there is the risk that the institution will move straight from growing pains to midlife crisis…