Guest Post: Five Questions on the Colombian Sentencing Practice and the Principle of Complementarity under the Rome Statue
[Marina Aksenova is a post-doc in the Centre for Excellence for International Courts, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.]
The ICC prosecution team has been conducting preliminary examinations in Colombia for over ten years and has yet to decide whether to move to the stage of formal investigations. In doing so, it must assess, among other things, whether reduced or suspended sentences rendered to senior perpetrators by the local judiciary are adequate in light of the gravity of the crimes committed during the continuing civil war. The ICC prosecution noted in its 2012 report on Colombia that some paramilitaries may benefit from the sentences of 5 to 8 years imprisonment if convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes provided they demobilize. The matter is further complicated by the ICC’s capacity to frustrate the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas. These talks aim at ending a conflict disrupting the country for over fifty years.
The issue of sentencing in Colombia illustrates the difficulties the Court faces in applying the principle of complementarity in practice. What are the exact criteria of assessing the state’s willingness to undertake genuine prosecutions? The ICC will evaluate domestic penalties with the reference to two different legal regimes provided by the Rome Statute – admissibility and sentencing. Up until now, the Court has not treated these two issues in conjunction with each other. The post discusses five specific concerns that this exercise may produce. This working paper elaborates on the context surrounding the questions presented below.
- Proportionality of sentences
The idea that a penalty must be in proportion to the gravity of the crime is widely accepted in international criminal law. In the Lubanga sentencing decision (para. 36), the ICC held that the ‘gravity of the crime’ is one of the principal factors to be considered in the determination of sentence, which should be in proportion to the offence and reflect the culpability of the convicted person. How will this consideration play out in the complementarity analysis? Will a sentence of 5 to 8 years of imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes be considered grossly disproportionate?
The principle of complementarity presupposes the primacy of states in handling cases domestically. Thus, according to Article 17 of the Rome Statute, a case comes within the purview of the Court only if the crimes are of sufficient gravity and the country in question is unable or unwilling to address them via its national criminal justice system. Article 17(2) specifies that the state is ‘unwilling’ if it initiates the proceedings with an unjustified delay or with the purpose of shielding the person concerned from criminal responsibility or fails to conduct the proceedings independently or impartially – all of which signals lack of intent to bring the person concerned to justice. It is important that the offences allegedly prosecuted and investigated on a national level cover substantially the same conduct as those charged by the ICC, while legal characterization of the underlying incidents matters less.
Consequently, even if domestic prosecutions cover the ‘same conduct’ but result in disproportionately light penalties, this may evidence the state’s intent to shield some persons from responsibility, and, thus, render the case admissible to the ICC. There are three caveats to this argument. First, the ICC’s own sentencing practice so far has been rather lenient: Thomas Lubanga received a sentence of 14 years of imprisonment and Germain Katanga received a sentence of 12 years. The Lubanga analysis of proportionality suggests that no rigid guidelines are available for measuring the correlation between the gravity of the offence and the sentence. The Chamber in its sentencing decision (paras. 92-93) rejected the strict numerical approach suggested by the OTP and upheld its own discretion to assess the totality of factors when deciding on the ultimate number of years of imprisonment. The deficiencies in Mr. Lunbanga’s mens rea and his cooperation with the Court played an important role in the determination of his sentence.
Secondly, in the Al Senussi admissibility decision (paras. 218-219), the ICC dealt with the reverse situation – the Defence argued that the threat of a death penalty, which the accused faced in Libya, rendered the case admissible because of the adverse effect on the accused. The ICC rejected this plea and granted local authorities a wide margin of appreciation when it comes to punishment, claiming it is not a human rights court. One might expect similar flexibility in cases on the other side of the spectrum.
Finally, Article 53(1)(c) of the Rome Statute allows some room for a manoeuvre granting the prosecution the power not to commence an investigation even where the situation is formally admissible if it serves the ‘interests of justice’. The ‘interests of justice’ is a broad category open to various interpretations, but ultimately it leaves the door open for a political compromise. The fragility of the Colombian peace talks is likely to fall within this category because arguably it provides for a valid reason not to proceed to the official investigations by the ICC.
- Participation of the convicted persons in political life
Participation of convicted persons in political life is a burning issue in the peace talks in Colombia. Many senior perpetrators have links to the government or the FARC and hope to remain in power after a deal has been reached. Even if certain leaders from both sides receive formal punishment, the question still remains whether these people will be allowed to form part of a future government. Is it possible to conceive of suspended or lenient sentences as sufficiently reflecting public censure if the convicted person re-enters politics? Can such punishment deter future violations by senior perpetrators?
The Rome Statute does not give any guidance as to whether convicted persons may participate in political life; it restricts the types of punishment to a maximum sentence of 30 years of imprisonment, fine and forfeiture of assets. If one looks at the broader picture, Article 27 renders the official capacity as is generally irrelevant to the ICC prosecutions. This provision is not directly relevant to sentencing, but it reflects the spirit of the Rome Statute. One might argue that for this reason alone the ICC may criticize participation of the convicted person’s in political life.
In its complementarity analysis, the ICC may also refer to the general sentencing practice of the respective state. The Colombian Criminal Code appears rather flexible in this regard; it leaves it up to the judges to decide whether to ban the offender from political life. The law provides for the suspension of rights and public functions as well as the loss of public office as an additional punishment for various offences, such as, murder of certain persons. Loss of public office can last up to 5 years, while suspension of other rights can vary from 5 to 20 years. In certain circumstances, rights can be restored at an earlier date (Articles 43(1), 43(2), 92, 135 of the Colombian Criminal Code).
The ICC is unlikely to be guided solely by the provisions of Colombian law, however. Instead, it is may look at the standards applicable in other states in an attempt to discern generally recognized principles of law deriving from the multitude of domestic legal systems. This is one of the sources of international law along with treaty and custom. It seems that in some jurisdictions there is a blanket prohibition to occupy public posts for those convicted of serious offences. For example, Article 45 of the German Criminal Code reads as follows: ‘Whoever is sentenced for a serious criminal offense to imprisonment for at least one year shall lose for a period of five years the capacity to hold public office and attain public electoral rights.’ This provision reflects an understanding that the public censure element of punishment is severely compromised if someone convicted of a grave offence is allowed to re-enter public life.
- Relevance of domestic law for the ICC complementarity analysis
The Rome Statute does not suggest that the ICC should consider the scale of penalties of the relevant state. Its determination of sentences shall solely be guided by the gravity of the crime, individual circumstances of the accused, and mitigating and aggravating factors. It is in contrast to the statutes of the ad hoc tribunals, which allow recourse to domestic law; although, it has rarely been seen in practice.
The ICC will assess Colombian criminal law in its complementarity analysis in the light of the principles enshrined in the Rome Statute and international law. The general principle is that the person cannot invoke domestic law to avoid responsibility under international criminal law. When it comes to the admissibility test, it is essential that the penalty imposed at the national level is not intended to shield the person from criminal responsibility.
- Disparity of sentences
The sentencing practice of the Colombian courts shows some disparity in sentences meted out to various parties to the conflict. Colombia attempts to bring to justice different responsible actors, but their penalties are significantly different. How will this aspect play out in the complementarity analysis of the ICC? The question of disparate sentences is tightly linked with the idea of individualized punishments and judicial discretion widely accepted at the ICC. There are a number of factors that might support Colombia’s claim for lenient (and, to a lesser extent, suspended) and/or disparate sentences.
Firstly, it seems that the ICC prosecution already pointed to broad discretion of the Colombian judiciary in its 2012 report (para. 206), when it confirmed that the ICC would examine local sentences individually on the basis of particular factors, such as, the intent to bring perpetrators to justice, the gravity of the crimes and the efforts to establish the truth. Secondly, the ICC practice itself shows relative leniency in its two available sentencing rulings. Thirdly, the reasoning in the Katanga sentencing decision (para. 38) exhibits a trend of integrating reconciliatory aims in sentencing considerations. Fourthly, the Rome Statute upholds the power of the prosecution to halt investigations if it is not in the ‘interests of justice’ in light of the gravity of the crimes and the interests of victims.
- Remedy to the victims
When combining two legal frameworks for the purposes of complementarity analysis, the ICC might have to decide where it stands on the issue of enforcement of human rights and victims’ rights. In the recent complementarity decision in the Al Senussi case (paras. 218-219), the ICC refused to act as a human rights court and rendered the case inadmissible, notwithstanding the death penalty threatening the accused. The Court’s view might be altered when victims’ rights are at stake, as is the case in Colombia. Both the Colombian national legislation and the Rome Statute contain provisions upholding victims’ rights in the process of criminal adjudication. Reduced sentences for war crimes and crimes against humanity may be at odds with the victims’ quest for justice. One way to resolve this contradiction is to ensure that victims receive adequate reparations for their suffering. It will not ‘offset’ the perceived impunity of senior perpetrators entirely, but it will help in mitigating the concern.