Can the ASP Permit Trial by Skype?

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Mark Kersten discusses today at Justice in Conflict, one of the reasons the Security Council rejected Kenya’s request to defer the Kenyatta and Ruto prosecutions is that it believes the issue of their presence at trial is better addressed by the Assembly of States Parties. Here is how Mark summarizes what could happen at the ASP:

At this year’s ASP, Kenya is hoping to see a number of amendments to the Rome Statute adopted. Chief among them is a change to provisions pertaining to whether an accused (and especially a Head of State) is required to be continuously present and his/her trial in The Hague. The problem for Kenya, however, is that even if a sufficient number of ICC states parties agreed to amend the Rome Statute, those changes would only come into effect after one year. Kenyatta’s trial is due to begin in early February, less than three months from now.

Consequently, Kenya will also seek amendments to Rule 134 of the ICC’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence. In particular, the ASP will examine proposed amendments to sections pertaining to the ‘presence’ of defendants during their trial. In plain language, proposals will be made to amend this rule in order to: 1) allow a defendant to be ‘present’ during trial via “video technology” and 2) allow a defendant to be personally excused at trial but be ‘present’ during trial via his/her counsel. There is every indication that other member-states, as well as the Obama administration, are inclined to support these amendments. Crucially, and unlike the proposed changes to the Rome Statute itself, if these amendments are passed by a two-thirds majority of states parties at the ASP, they would take effect immediately. An ICC trial by Skype is emerging as a real possibility.

Mark argues that “The ASP faces two key hurdles: first, any amendments have to be consistent with the Rome Statute and, second, any amendment will have to jive with previous Appeal Chamber decisions.” I don’t think the second issue is particularly important: if the ASP amends the Rome Statute or the RPE, that amendment would presumably trump any judicial interpretation of the provision’s previous incarnation.

The first issue, however, is critical — and I don’t see how the ASP can get around the amendment provisions in the Rome Statute by amending RPE 134 instead of Art. 63(1) itself. Rule 134 says nothing about the defendant’s presence at trial; it simply establishes the procedures governing motions relating to trial proceedings. More importantly, as Mark notes, the RPE are subordinate to the Rome Statute — and Art. 63(1) specifically provides that “[t]he defendant shall be present at trial.” There is no question that “presence” in Art. 63(1) refers to physical presence; after all, Art. 63(2) provides that “[i]f the accused, being present before the Court, continues to disrupt the trial, the Trial Chamber may remove the accused.” Presence also means physical presence throughout the RPE, as indicated by, inter alia, Rules 122, 123, and 124 (concerning the defendant’s presence at the confirmation hearing.)

Given the clear meaning of Art. 63(1), I don’t think the ASP can excuse Kenyatta and Ruto from being physically present at trial by redefining presence in the RPE. Indeed, I think it would be disingenuous for the ASP to try. The problem, of course, is that amending Art. 63(1) would not help Kenyatta and Ruto; as Mark notes, unlike amendments to the RPE, amendments to the Rome Statute do not immediately take effect. In fact, Mark significantly understates how long it would take for an amendment to Art. 63(1) to be activated: pursuant to Art. 121(4), non-substantive amendments come into force one year after 7/8 of States Parties have accepted the amendment, not one year after the amendment is approved by the ASP. That could take years.

We’ll see what the ASP does. Colour me skeptical, though, that the Security Council made a wise decision by punting the presence issue to the ASP.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/11/19/can-asp-permit-trial-skype/

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