Could Palestine Self-Refer Only the Situation in the West Bank?
In the comments to my first post on the ICC and retroactive jurisdiction, Johnboy4546 suggested that the Palestinians might self-refer only the situation in the West Bank to the Court. Such a referral would have two clear advantages for the Palestinians: (1) it would prevent the OTP from investigating Hamas’s rocket attacks, which are almost always launched from Gaza, as well as crimes committed by Fatah-related groups in Gaza (such as the murder of civilians); and (2) Israel would be extremely unlikely to prosecute the crime the Palestinians would want the OTP to investigate in the West Bank, the direct or indirect transfer of the civilian population into occupied territory, thereby ensuring that Israel could not take advantage of the Rome Statute’s principle of complementarity.
It’s a creative suggestion — and one that I’ve been hearing with increasing regularity from people sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. (I’ve just returned from a wonderful conference in Tel Aviv, a trip that included giving three different presentations in one day — a new record for me.) But would such a geographically-limited self-referral be possible?
On balance, I don’t think so. There is no question that a state can self-refer crimes committed on a portion of its territory; that is how the ICC treated Uganda’s referral of the situation in Northern Uganda. (Uganda only referred crimes committed by the LRA, but the Court recharacterized that self-referral on the ground that Article 14(1) of the Rome Statute limits states to referring “situations.”) The Security Council also limited its Sudan referral to crimes committed in Darfur. Those referrals would seem to suggest that Palestine could refer only the situation in the West Bank to the Court. (I am assuming for sake of argument that the Palestinian state includes both West Bank and Gaza.)
The problem is that such a geographically-limited referral would frustrate the spirit, if not the letter, of Article 14(1). As is widely acknowledged, the drafters limited Article 14(1) to situations precisely to prevent states from using referrals to target their political opponents. (A legitimate fear, as Uganda’s original self-referral indicates.) By requiring states to refer situations instead of cases, Article 14(1) ensures that the OTP will always be able to investigate crimes committed by both parties to a conflict.
And therein lies the problem with a hypothetical West Bank referral. Such a referral would obviously be designed to enable the Court to investigate crimes committed by Israel while preventing it from investigating crimes committed by Hamas. Functionally, then, a West Bank referral would be no different than Uganda’s self-referral of the LRA’s crimes. The Court would be very unlikely to accept such a referral simply because it was framed in geographic terms. After all, Uganda could have referred only those parts of Uganda in which the LRA operated instead of specifically — and clumsily — targeting the LRA. I doubt that the Court would have permitted Uganda to accomplish indirectly what it could not accomplish directly.
Nor is that all: even if the Court would be willing to accept a West Bank referral, Palestine might find it difficult to prevent the OTP from investigating its own crimes. To begin with, the OTP could simply decline to investigate a referral that was limited to the West Bank — on the basis of either insufficient gravity or the “interests of justice” — and then use its proprio motu powers to initiate a broader investigation. I’m skeptical that the current OTP would be foolish enough to conduct any investigation into one of the most politicized conflicts in history. But if it did, it would certainly not be foolish enough to investigate only one side of that conflict.
Moreover, it is not clear that an investigation into the West Bank would preclude the OTP from investigating crimes committed in Gaza. In Mbarushimana, the defendant argued that because the DRC’s self-referral was limited to crimes committed in the Ituri region, the Court did not have jurisdiction over the crimes he allegedly committed in North and South Kivu. The Pre-Trial Chamber rejected that argument on the ground that, in fact, the DRC had not limited its self-referral to Ituri. But it also suggested — obliquely — that, had the referral been so geographically limited, the Court might still have had jurisdiction over at least some acts committed outside of Ituri. Consider the following paragraphs (emphasis added):
16. The issue at stake is to determine whether the facts underlying the charges brought by the Prosecutor against Mr Mbarushimana can be said not to exceed the territorial, temporal and possibly personal parameters defining the situation under investigation. More specifically, according to the test developed by the Chamber in the present case, it is required that the crimes referred to in the Prosecutor’s application for a warrant of arrest for Mr Mbarushimana occurred in the context of the ongoing situation of crisis that triggered the jurisdiction of the Court through the Referral by the DRC. As already clarified by the Chamber, such a situation can include not only crimes that had already been or were being committed at the time of the referral, but also crimes committed after that time, in so far as they are sufficiently linked to the situation of crisis which was ongoing at the time of the referral.
21. The Chamber takes note of the DRC Observations, clarifying that; in submitting the Referral, the competent authorities did not intend to limit the Court’s jurisdiction to one or more particular provinces within its territory. As already determined by the Chamber, the territorial and temporal scope of a situation is to be inferred from the analysis of the situation of crisis that triggered the jurisdiction of the Court through the referral. Crimes committed after the referral can fall within the jurisdiction of the Court when sufficiently linked to that particular situation of crisis.
Although far from the picture of clarity, these paragraphs seem to imply that the Court’s understanding of the situation underlying a state’s self-referral is more important than the specific parameters of the referral itself. As long as there is a sufficient nexus between a particular crime and the facts that motivated the state to refer the situation in question, the Court has jurisdiction over that crime.
I don’t want to push that interpretation too strongly. The PTC’s comment regarding territorial jurisdiction was dicta, given how it construed the DRC’s self-referral. But the rationale is the same for both temporal and territorial jurisdiction: states should not be able to craft self-referrals that prevent the Court from exercising jurisdiction over crimes that, in an objective analysis, really do fall within the parameters of the situation in question. That principle explains why Uganda could not self-refer only the LRA’s crimes to the Court — and it explains why Palestine should not be able to impose geographic restrictions on a situation that would effectively limit the OTP to investigating crimes committed by Israel.