17 Jul MH17 Downing Suspects to be Prosecuted Before Dutch Domestic Courts – An Obstacle or an Advantage for International Justice?
[Dr. Aaron Matta is an expert in international law with working experience at International Courts. He also recently co-founded The Hague Council on Advancing International Justice, a network for and with practitioners, academics, and policymakers in the area of international justice. I would like to thank Dr. Philip Ambach and Anda Scarlat for their feedback on earlier drafts of this commentary.The views expressed here are of the authors alone]
After nearly three years since the downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight, the countries comprising the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) – namely Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine – announced on 5 July their decision to initiate domestic investigations and prosecutions in the Netherlands in relation to the incident. To facilitate these procedures, a bilateral treaty on international legal cooperation between Ukraine and the Netherlands was signed on July 7. The treaty provides that those suspected of downing flight MH17 can be prosecuted in the Netherlands in respect of all 298 victims, which originate from 17 different countries. This means that all next of kin will have the same rights in the Dutch criminal proceedings regardless of their nationality.
These new developments are not surprising given that most of the victims were Dutch and the Netherlands has led the investigation and coordinated the international team of investigators thus far. This move also shows the determination of the JIT states to bring to justice those responsible, particularly after failed attempts to establish an ad hoc international MH17 Court had failed due to Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council. However, the recent decision to prosecute suspects in a Dutch domestic court raises challenges, particularly in view of the ongoing preliminary examination in Ukraine by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). While international law provides several legal avenues for redress for this incident, in both criminal and civil proceedings, – which I extensively analyzed in an earlier blog post – the avenues analyzed here fall under the category of individual criminal responsibility.
So why can the Netherlands exercise its criminal jurisdiction in this case, if the incident occurred in Ukraine? In principle, Ukraine would retain the primary right to investigate and prosecute those responsible according to the legal principle of territorial jurisdiction – based on where the crime was committed. The Ukrainian leadership determined, however, that it would be very difficult to carry out the investigations and prosecutions due to the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region, where the MH17 incident took place. As a result, Ukraine triggered the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed on its territory from 20 February 2014 onwards via two declarations under the ICC Statute, requesting the ICC Prosecutor to investigate the matter. Currently, following these requests, the ICC Prosecutor is undertaking a preliminary examination that could lead to the opening of a criminal investigation. Such investigation could potentially include the downing of the MH17 flight as an alleged war crime.
Nonetheless, the other JIT states, including the Netherlands, can also assert their domestic jurisdictions over this matter based on the legal principle of passive personality jurisdiction, due to the fact that their citizens were killed in this incident. In light of last week’s decision, the Dutch domestic criminal specialized courts will now be able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the downing of MH17 on the basis of four main legal sources: first, as domestic crimes under the Dutch penal code, such as murder or manslaughter; second, as an international crime under the Dutch International Crimes Act of 2003; thirdly, as a crime on the basis of the 1971 Montreal Convention, which allows the domestic prosecution of any person committing unlawful acts against the safety of civil aviation; and finally, the bilateral judicial cooperation agreement recently signed with Ukraine.
However, the concurrent use of multiple criminal prosecution mechanisms, namely the Dutch domestic courts and the ICC, may cause difficulties. First, issues may arise under the basic principle of ‘ne bis in idem’, which states that no person can be tried twice for the same crime. Thus, if a Dutch court prosecutes an individual, this may prevent the ICC from prosecuting the same individual for the same crime. It is therefore essential for the JIT states to coordinate and cooperate with each other, and more importantly with the ICC, when it comes to gathering evidence, selection of suspects and conducting fair trials, to avoid duplication and wasting resources.
In addition, an investigation by the Dutch national authorities will most likely block any investigation by the ICC by virtue of the latter’s complementarity to national courts of its States Parties. According to this principle, states are primarily responsible for investigating and prosecuting international crimes. The ICC only intervenes if states parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC are unable or unwilling to prosecute individuals’ suspected/accused of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. With this in mind, a division of labor between the different jurisdictions, and among the different actors involved, could be arranged. For example, the Netherlands could focus in prosecuting those most responsible for the MH17 incident, while the ICC concentrates its efforts and limited resources to investigating other crimes committed in the Ukrainian territory.
Other challenges that will be faced by all of the jurisdictions involved are, for example, meeting the high standards of proof required for establishing the suspects’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This includes notably the requirement to prove the alleged perpetrator’s ‘knowledge and intent’ to commit a war crime. Additionally, there will be several procedural obstacles when it comes to judicial cooperation and the sharing of crucial potential evidence. Clear examples of this are the thousands of intercepted telephone calls gathered by Ukrainian law enforcement and intelligence agencies. While some of this evidence can easily be shared with the JIT investigators, as well as with the Dutch and ICC prosecutors, in several instances much of this data cannot be shared due to some restrictions in the Ukrainian legal system. This is the case, for example, with evidence that may have been acquired or intercepted following special legal procedures into the downing of the MH17, such as investigations carried out in the interest of state security and the fight against terrorism.
The bilateral agreement between the Netherlands and Ukraine addresses some of these issues by reducing or simplifying some procedural hurdles. For example, the agreement tackles the issue of examination of Ukrainian defendants via video link or the transferring of enforcement of prison sentences that may be imposed, due to extradition restrictions in the Ukrainian legal system.
Finally, a major obstacle will prove to be obtaining custody of the potential suspects, particularly if they are Russian nationals and/or located on Russian territory. The Russian Federation will most likely not be willing to extradite potential Russian suspects, in spite of international pressure, in light of the current geopolitical tensions prevailing in the region. In this respect, trials in absentia (where the suspect is absent from the legal proceedings), which are provided for in the Dutch criminal code could prove to be a limited yet practical solution.
Regardless of these numerous challenges, the decision to initiate judicial proceedings in the Netherlands providing a solid avenue for legal redress for the incident should be welcomed. Such an initiative would further show that the JIT states are serious about seeking justice for the victims of this tragic incident and their relatives.