Tag Archives: libya

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.