[Hemi Mistry is an Assistant Professor in Law at the University of Nottingham, where she researches and teaches in the area of international criminal justice. Her current research focuses upon how judicial procedure before international courts and tribunals affects how those institutions pursue their mandates. She wishes to thank Dov Jacobs for hosting this guest post.]
It’s a been a fiery time in the world of ICL: first, the decision by Pre Trial Chamber (PTC) II not to authorise an investigation into the situation in Afghanistan situation and second, this week’s bumper decision by the Appeals Chamber (AC) in Al Bashir, concerning Jordan’s non-cooperation in the execution of the arrest warrant for Omar Al Bashir and – more widely – the matter of immunities under customary international law. With the judicial division of the ICC seemingly intent upon institutional (self-)immolation, the international legal Blogosphere and Twittersphere have watched on (and fanned the flames) in horror. Amidst the flames, I wish to highlight one important aspect of Monday’s AC decision which represents a positive development in the Court’s caselaw. Specifically, this post concerns the Appeal Chamber’s reversal, by majority, of PTC II’s decision under Article 87(7) to refer Jordan’s non-cooperation in the arrest and surrender Omar Al Bashir to the UN Security Council and ICC Assembly of States Parties. Against the backdrop of the bigger ‘immunities’ question (for first of what will likely be many takes, see Jacobs and Akande) and the post-Afghanistan decision ‘crisis’, the corrective issued by the AC may at first glance appear to be a case of fiddling while Rome burns. However, as I will argue, this aspect of the AC decision represents an important attempt by the Chamber to reign in, or at least draw a line under, one of the most problematic and (excuse the pun) unruly traits in recent PTC decision-making. But first, a lot has happened, so to understand the significance of this week’s decision it is necessary to go back to basics…settle in for a story…
Article 87(7) represents one of the limited number of tools available to the ICC to respond to failures by its States Parties to comply with their obligations under the Rome Statute and to provide cooperation to the Court in the forms requested by its organs. It reads:
Where a State Party fails to comply with a request to cooperate by the Court contrary to the provision of this Statute, thereby preventing the Court from exercising its functions and powers under this Statute, the Court may make a finding to that effect and refer the matter to the Assembly of States Parties or, where the Security Council referred the matter to the Court, to the Security Council.
Article 87(7) determinations of non-cooperation and referrals to the Security Council have become a standard response to the failure by States Parties to arrest and surrender Omar Al Bashir upon his presence within their jurisdictions. The first three ‘referrals’ of non-cooperation by PTC I of Sudan in Harun and Ali Kushayb and of Kenya and Chad in Al Bashir, all issued in 2010, were not technically referrals under Article 87(7), but the exercise rather a summarily-claimed inherent power to ‘inform’ the Security Council of the accused’s presence upon the territory of a State Party, or the situation-State. However since then, PTC II, initially configured as PTC I, made three Article 87(7) referrals of Sudanese non-cooperation in violation of its obligation to cooperate with the Court established under Security Council Resolution 1593: two in Al Bashir (here, and here) and one in Hussein (here). Further to this, Chambers have issued non-cooperation decisions against eight States Parties for their failures to arrest and surrender Al Bashir upon his presence within their respective jurisdiction: Chad (2011, and 2013), Malawi (2011), Nigeria (2013), the DRC (2014), South Africa (2015), Uganda (2016), Djibouti (2016), and Jordan (2017). In all but two instances (Nigeria (2013) and South Africa (2015)) of these instances of non-cooperation the Chamber went on to refer that non-cooperation to the Security Council and the Assembly of States Parties. Monday’s AC decision, however, reverses the PTC’s decision to refer Jordan’s non-cooperation to the Security Council.
PTC II’s caselaw on Article 87(7) is characterised by two themes: 1) Its growing frustration with the failure of states to engage with – even acknowledge – their obligations to cooperate under the Rome Statue, and 2) the PTC’s growing frustration with the Security Council and its failure to do anything to follow up on the Chamber’s referrals once they had been made. These frustrations manifested themselves in a number of ways. One way has been the gradual escalation in the language and detail with which the Chamber exhorts the responsibility of both States Parties and the Security Council to cooperate with and support the Court. Another way this frustration has manifested is the Chamber’s attempt to leverage whatever coercive tools it has within the Rome Statute toolkit to nudge States Parties towards increasing constructive engagement with the Court around the matter of cooperation, with the ultimate goal being fulfilment of cooperation requests. One such tool is the discretionary component of Article 87(7).
The early jurisprudence in Al Bashir adopted a straightforward interpretation of Article 87(7). The permissive, or discretionary, nature of the power to determine non-cooperation and refer was not acknowledged and, instead, once the Chamber had established the State Party was under an obligation to cooperate and two had failed in fact to provide that cooperation, the referral of that finding of non-cooperation was automatic (see, for example, Chad (2011, and 2013), Malawi (2011)). In these early decisions the Chamber was presented with quite straightforward non-cooperation: the states in question simply did not engage with or acknowledge their obligations under the Statute, asserting instead the immunity of then-President Al Bashir. With non-cooperation findings and referrals stacking up and gathering dust untouched by the Security Council, in 2013 the Chamber was presented with a new situation when, for the first time, it was presented with non-cooperation by a State Party – Nigeria – which did, at least, acknowledge and accept its obligations under the Statute, which professed its commitment to fulfilling those obligations and which provided explanations for its failure on that occasion meet the Court’s cooperation request. In response, for the first time the PTC acknowledged the permissive ‘may’ in Article 87(7) and in doing so emphasised the discretionary nature of its powers under Article 87(7) (para.10). Although it appeared to implicitly acknowledge that Nigeria’s failure to arrest and surrender had been a breach of its obligations to cooperate, the Chamber did not make a formal finding to that effect. Instead, after ‘taking note’ of the explanation offered by Nigeria for its inaction, it concluded simply that ‘it is not warranted in the present circumstances to refer the matter’ (para.13).
Yet, the following year, when the DRC argued that the Chamber should not refer its non-cooperation in materially similar circumstances to Nigeria and having made similar representations as to its good faith commitment to its obligations under the Rome Statute, the Chamber refused to follow its Nigeria decision. Rather, it did two things. First, it appeared to distinguish DRC’s non-cooperation on the facts: referring in its dispositive paragraphs to the ‘deliberate’ refusal of the DRC to arrest and surrender Al Bashir, and elsewhere in the decision it described the DRC’s explanation for its non-cooperation as ‘unconvincing’ (para.13). With no objective difference between the motives of, and explanations provided by, Nigeria and the DRC respectively, it would seem that this distinction on the facts was made on the basis of a subjective assessment of the good faith credentials of the relevant parties. The exercise of discretion on this basis is not itself problematic – indeed the value of judicial discretion is in its ability to allow judges to be responsive to the circumstances of the decision at hand. However, the Chamber’s refusal to be convinced by the DRC’s explanation for its non-cooperation is itself difficult to accept given that the previous year it was ready to accept on face value that same explanation when offered by the Nigerians. That aside, the most problematic aspect of the Court’s decision in the DRC case is the second thing it did: it introduced a new and additional obligation, the obligation to consult with the Chamber in accordance with Article 97 of the Statute. On the basis of two findings – 1) the ‘deliberate’ failure to arrest Al Bashir (which was no more deliberate than Nigeria’s failure) and 2) the DRC’s failure to engage in Article 97 consultations, the Chamber referred the DRC’s non-cooperation to the Security Council, even though no mention of Article 97 was ever made in the previous Nigeria decision. It is this manoeuvre by the Court – the moving of the goalposts for the exercise of its judicial discretion – that is difficult to accept as legitimate.
Up until now, the structure of the Chamber’s analysis under Article 87(7) had been broadly the same. Notwithstanding the implicit acknowledgement of Nigeria’s factual non-cooperation, in all cases, the Chamber swept together the non-cooperation finding and the referral of that finding. However, in 2015, PTC II once again departed from its caselaw, confronted now by a state – South Africa – whose own Supreme Court had determined that it had failed to provide cooperation to the Court, contrary to its obligations under the Statute. Yet, not only did South Africa itself advance this Supreme Court ruling as evidence of its commitment to its obligations under the Statute and – more broadly to the rule of law – it had gone further, and had engaged the process of consultations under Article 97 which the Chamber had, in its DRC decision, identified as a decisive factor in the exercise of judicial discretion. Thus, the Chamber was forced to uncouple the non-cooperation finding and the referral: it made the finding of fact that South Africa had failed to cooperate in accordance with its obligations under the Statute, but nevertheless it decided not to refer that finding to the Security Council.
Having moved the goalposts once in the DRC decision, and having exhausted the (very limited) panoply of obligations under the Rome Statute that it could add to the justifications for the exercise of its discretion in South Africa and in doing so move the goalposts again, the PTC II had – it appeared – exhausted the leveraging potential of its discretion under Article 87(7). Yet, when it came to address Jordan’s failure to arrest and surrender Al Bashir in 2017 although Jordan had objectively overcome all the hurdles set out by the PTC II in Nigeria, then DRC and South Africa, the PTC refused to follow its decision in South Africa. Instead, it determined that what Jordan claimed was engagement with the consultation process in Article 97 was not, in fact, engagement with the consultation process (para.46-49). It further argued that Jordan could not have engaged in consultations for the purpose of Article 97 because the obstacle impeding cooperation that it advanced as the subject of those consultations – i.e. the question of immunities – had been addressed, resolved and removed in the course of the consultations on the same matter undertaken by South Africa (para.54-55). Now, therefore, it would seem that if Jordan wished to invoke the consultation procedure to qualify for the Chamber’s consideration of not to refer its non-cooperation, it needed to have come up with a novel obstacle to cooperation to consult over. Yet again, the goalposts were moved. This manoeuvre was one step too far and, on Monday, the AC reversed the PTC’s decision to refer Jordan’s non-cooperation. Not only did the AC conclude that the PTC made an ‘error’ in mischaracterising Jordan’s attempts to engage the Article 97 consultation process, but that the differential treatment of Jordan and South Africa constituted ‘an abuse of judicial discretion’ (para 210-211).
This aspect of the AC decision, and especially the strongly worded rebuke of the PTC’s conduct, should be welcomed. On one hand, the Chamber’s experiment with leveraging its discretion to refer non-cooperation to the Council to influence the behaviour – even if it is just the argumentative behaviour – of States Parties was partly successful. The DRC – rather than not engaging with the cooperation obligation – acknowledged, like Nigeria did, its obligation under the Rome Statute, stated its commitment to its Rome Statute obligations, but explained the practical impediments to its ability to discharge those obligations at the case at hand. Similarly, Jordan sought to engage the same consultation process under Article 97. Even though, as the Chamber itself pointedly observed, the Council has consistently failed to act upon its referrals – such that there is little ‘hard’ consequence from such a referral – States Parties, first the DRC and more recently Jordan, have taken steps to align their non-cooperation with that of Nigeria and South Africa to avoid a referral to the Security Council. Whereas PTC I has argued that the referral under Article 87(7) are meant to be ‘value neutral’ and ‘not designed to sanction or criticise the requested State’ (para.33) (in the same breath, however, it appeared to concur with PTC II in characterising the referral power as a tools ‘“to use at a certain point in time as a last resort measure or as part of a comprehensive strategy to promote cooperation (para.24)), it would seem that PTC II has had some success in persuading States Parties that a non-referral is a ‘carrot’ worth striving (or at least arguing) for.
On the other hand, having achieved that, the Chamber’s refusal to treat like cases alike and its frustration of the legitimate expectation of states, simply, reeks of bad faith. One of the fundamental tenants of the rule of law is the expectation that, under the rule of law, like cases will be treated alike. It is one if not the factor that distinguishes the politics of legality from those other – less desirable – forms of politics that legality exists in opposition to (Shklar 1964). It is through the giving of reasons that legitimate expectations are created and stability and predictability in the exercise of judicial discretion are guaranteed. In the face of the considerable political, diplomatic and – indeed – legal controversies arising out of the Al Bashir arrest warrant, it was reasonable for states to look to the PTC’s caselaw for guidance and to rely upon that caselaw. The development of – and adherence to – stable and predictable principles might do little to incentivise the kinds of changes in state behaviour (i.e. the movement towards cooperation) that the strategy of leveraging its discretion has been aimed towards. Arguably, for this reason, the experiment with decoupling of the non-cooperation determination and the referral to leverage the referral discretion was always doomed to folly. However, PTC I has also accepted the decoupling of the non-cooperation determination and the Security Council referral, having characterised non-cooperation findings as value neutral objective assessments of fact (Al Islam 2014 at para.23) and referrals as ‘one of the tools available to the Court “to use at a certain point in time as a last resort measure or as part of a comprehensive strategy to promote cooperation”’ (Al Islam 2014 at para.23). As such, the discretionary nature of the referral determination is likely here to stay and, going forward, Chambers need to develop transparent principles to guide that discretion if they are to rebuild some of the trust of States Parties. In the face of the failure of the Security Council to take political action in response to PTC, the manoeuvring of the goalposts for the Article 87(7) non-referral was clearly a proactive attempt to enhance the effectiveness of the Court. However, judicial chambers are not the Security Council or the Assembly of States Parties; they are judicial bodies, not political bodies. With the composition of PTC II now changed, this week’s decision by the AC reminds the new crop of judges that – going forward – if they too wish to engage in politics, they must play the game of legality and abide by the basic rules of that game.