Transitional Justice and Judicial Activism Symposium: Comments by Dinah PoKempner

by Dinah PoKempner

[Dinah PoKempner is General Counsel of Human Rights Watch. She is writing in her personal capacity. Views expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of HRW.]

Increasing judicial recognition of a duty to investigate and even to prosecute serious violations of international law is unlikely to narrow the ambit of transitional justice; to the contrary, it adds pressure for more thorough transitional measures by upping the reputational cost of impunity.

Not even two decades have passed since agreement of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, arguably a high water mark in political consensus on accountability for human rights crimes. While that institution has survived what was initially feared to be its strongest political obstacle—the non-participation and even subversion of great powers—it is still having difficulty in gaining acceptance in Africa, a region with the greatest number of both states parties and ICC investigations. The region is also known for weak state institutions where, as Ruti Teitel would acknowledge, supranational judicial intervention (even by invitation) may be most likely and most appropriate. Indeed, watching its moves in carefully navigating a course to find what is politically as well as legally feasible to prosecute is itself an education in the limitations of international law as a bulwark against real-world impunity, even after the moment of international political consensus.

I mention this, because it seems premature to worry, as Teitel does, about a developing judicial consensus on what she terms the “right to accountability” overwhelming the political options for transitional justice. If anything, judicial recognition of state obligations to provide account, investigate and even prosecute the most serious abuses can add a little impetus for broader transition from a regime of abuse towards one of legality.

Teitel elegantly traces a number of components of accountability through international judicial bodies. She grounds the notion of account in the crime of enforced disappearance, where the question of what happened and who did it—that is, the state’s refusal to give account–is quite literally the central wrong. As she points out, the law developed in a way highly sensitive to context, in this case the regional as well as national context of patterns of impunity, failure to investigate, and systemic political corruption that courts noted in imputing duties to the state even where states denied involvement in the crime.

It bears mention that in less obscure contexts—massacres, genocides, ethnic cleansing—the notion of an investigation and formal account has also become established as a primary duty of the state, both through normal domestic law and through transitional mechanisms. Should the state fail in this duty, such an account might be supplied by a foreign or international prosecutor, court or commission if need be. Either way, resort beyond the national courts indicates a failure of the state to assume the burden of the account as well as the conclusions on remediation or retribution that may flow therefrom. What disappearance jurisprudence added was not an entirely sui generis duty of investigation or right to the truth (.pdf), but rather a notable judicial reluctance to step aside (by courts flexibly interpreting doctrines such as standing, exhaustion of remedies, statutes of limitation, etc.) when a state stonewalled on what everyone more or less knew were the likely victims, the likely perpetrators, and the likely wrongs.

Indeed, enforced disappearance, more than many other human rights crimes, is custom-built for legal deniability. It may be that the precedent of courts sidestepping prudential obstacles to read new duties into the law may be more interesting as a model of judicial approach for other elusive or deniable crimes than as the origin point of a duty to investigate. Perhaps a duty of democratic oversight or transparency will one day be read into human rights law when deniability for violations rests on secrecy justified by national security interests; or maybe we will see a duty of accurate and public record-keeping on persons taken into state custody, to avoid liability for conditions that encourage abuse.

The second line of jurisprudence Teitel describes as creating a “right to retributive justice” involve state actions that in the main implicate criminal acts for which there is a clear and pre-existing duty of investigation and potentially prosecution, such as torture, enforced disappearance or a crime against humanity. Although scholars have long asserted a duty of prosecution, it was not seen by all as comprehensive or mandatory until fairly recently. That such a duty is gaining judicial recognition is a natural corollary of the positive duty of states to prevent abuses, by discouraging an environment of impunity.

But the formal legal recognition of a duty to prosecute does not necessarily displace transitional justice measures as Teitel suggests when she adverts to “a restructuring and narrowing of the relevant questions” or to a shift of emphasis from “political and social goals of transition to other more limited aims such as procedural justice for victims and their families.” There is no reason that these processes cannot co-exist, and indeed, they often do.

Indeed, as she acknowledges, supranational legal interventions from regional courts can also take place outside of a transitional context or in lieu of it; Russia and Turkey are not in the midst of transition with respect to their counter-terrorism policies, to the contrary. One might even wonder whether the incorporation of some states to regional human rights mechanisms might in some ways “normalize” these moments of intervention and criticism. But even where they don’t produce systemic change, such interventions do not pass unnoticed and can provide some support for those who press for greater respect of human rights or incorporation of universal standards into domestic law. And sometimes these rulings can impel further alignment with more generally held democratic norms where the political process hit a plateau.

Teitel’s recommendation that regional courts take into consideration whether some deference to transitional justice processes is due, while pragmatic, perhaps misses the point that whatever their function was at their moment of inception, these courts are not serving only transitional ends. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, mostly regulates mature democracies, and undue deference to the transient political circumstances of one state creates normative license for others as well. A regional court may not be able to disturb a self-amnesty law in a given country, but it can discourage that law from having wider recognition as a legitimate act of a sovereign democracy. The repertoire of transitional justice is likely to remain broader than the jurisprudence of human rights courts, which serve a different end, and a different pace.

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