Transitional Justice and Judicial Activism Symposium: Comments by Chandra Lekha Sriram

by Chandra Lekha Sriram

[Chandra Lekha Sriram, Professor of International Law and International Relations and Director, Centre on Human Rights in Conflict, University of East London.]

This insightful article covers a great deal of subject matter, far more than can be analysed in a brief comment. These include not only the topics signaled by the title, but also the relationship between transitional justice and international criminal accountability and between transitional justice and the jurisprudence of regional courts. The primary focus of the article is the jurisprudence of regional courts, specifically the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), on forced disappearances and its relationship to political transitions. It necessarily touches upon a number of complex issues that continue to bedevil transitional justice and international criminal justice, and I will take up a few of these.

State perpetration and state inaction
The paper understandably begins with the jurisprudence of the IACtHR) and the Velasquez-Rodriguez, relating to enforced disappearances in Honduras. As with many of the cases to follow, while the pattern of state perpetration appeared evident, the state engaged in blanket denial of responsibility, and evidentiary difficulties have meant that judgments have relied on a mixture of state responsibility for direct action by its agents, and of state inaction. Teitel rightly flags this issue, but doesn’t expand on it as she might do, particularly in light of two challenges which confront international criminal and transitional justice: the role of non-state actors in serious abuses, and modalities of interpreting complicity and joint criminal enterprise.

Transnational/regional state violence
Not surprisingly given the history of transnational violence and inter-state collaboration in abuses via Plan Condor in South America, the IACtHR has had to render judgments on regional violence. Yet, while its decisions have referred to regional patterns of violence, they haven’t grappled sufficiently with additional challenges that state collaboration may have for questions of state responsibility, either for breaches of obligations to their own citizens or potentially those in relation to other states. Teitel explains that the trend is to treat such violations as erga omnes and thus of concern to the international community generally; this turn also appears to underpin treatment of temporal jurisdiction encompassing violations which predate some states’ acceptance of the jurisdiction of the court. Each of these trends seem open to question, and the essay might have interrogated these further.

Justice in and for strong vs weak states
The article argues that there has been a shift from strong to weak state transitional justice, in states with weak rule of law, with concomitant effects for regional and international courts. Certainly, it is notable that many of the situation countries at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are either emerging from serious internal armed conflict or are dysfunctional or collapsed states. However, these countries are all in Africa, with only Georgia now the subject of a non-African request for the opening of an investigation, and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of either of the regional courts examined in the article. Further, while it is true that some of these states do have weak or failing judiciaries, many do not, although those judiciaries may well be corrupt or biased. Further, many states of interest for the article are not weak or collapsed, and are able to resist implementing judgments, either thoroughly or at all, such as Russia or Brazil. Even some ICC situation countries are quite strong, or at least able to resist external courts, such as Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. The claim regarding this trend needs more justification, particularly as there are important implications noted, such as that it is concomitant with an expansion of legal obligations and rights.

Cross-judging or transnational legal culture?
The article develops the concept of “cross-judging”, or interpretation across legal systems. She characterizes this largely as the cross-referencing of cases between the two regional courts. However, one might ask for a greater examination of the use of similar doctrines and practices across not only these courts but also others, as she begins to discuss when addressing subsidiarity, deference, and the ICC principle of complementarity. Here, an examination of the work of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights might have provided an additional comparative perspective, particularly given that court’s broader application of states’ obligations beyond the African Convention. The necessity of the creation of the term “cross-judging” is also somewhat unclear, given the rich literature that exists on transnational judicial dialogue and transnational legal culture. Is there something unique about the new term?

Expanding external jurisprudence and internal transitional justice
Teitel closes with reflections upon the challenges where courts intervene in countries where accountability has begun, but has stopped or is delayed. She suggests that there is, or ought to be, a continuum of accountability where there are domestic political considerations in play. Building on conceptions of judicial deference, subsidiarity and complementarity, she makes the case for caution with the increase of judicialization. It is an important call, given that much of the argument against judicialization and indeed individual criminalization has focused purely on political pragmatism, and political strategies, whereas she focuses on legal strategies. This approach opens up new opportunities for both research and policy development.

To close in brief, this is an article rich with challenges and ideas, and I have drawn on and queried just a few. Naturally, such an article could not have addressed all of the issues I have raised, but I look forward to Teitel’s reactions to the comments in this piece and others.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/12/10/transitional-justice-and-judicial-activism-symposium-comments-by-chandra-lekha-sriram/

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