Archive for
October, 2017

Reflections on Burundi’s Withdrawal from the International Criminal Court

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is Associate Professor, The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS, and Chair of the International Criminal Court Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association.]

On Friday, October 27, Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, filed one year earlier, became effective. This sad event —the first ever withdrawal from the Court to become effective — warrants reflection.

While it is frequently recited that the ICC’s Rome Statute needs to move towards “universality” as to ratifications, we should be concerned that the number of ratifying countries (which had stood at 124), has decreased (to 123). Undoubtedly, the situation could be worse, in that other States Parties that have at times threatened individual or mass withdrawal (particularly African States Parties) have not done so. But, it might behoove us to reflect on the slowing pace of ratifications and now this backwards slide.   Burundi’s withdrawal should serve as a wake-up call that States Parties and Civil Society need a revitalized approach to advancing Rome Statute ratifications, because it is only through increasing membership towards universality that the ICC will ultimately escape accusations of double-standards and uneven application of international criminal justice.

Withdrawal of a State Party also illustrates that it is ultimately much more difficult for the ICC to investigate and/or prosecute where state actors are allegedly implicated in crimes. If the state where the crimes occurred is not in favor of the ICC’s involvement, the state can block the ICC from entering its territory, making investigations difficult. Then, the state can refuse to comply with requests for cooperation (as to documents and/or witnesses), and, ultimately, it can ignore any arrest warrants that issue. This is most likely to occur where there has been proprio motu initiation of the ICC’s work (that is, it was the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP)’s initial idea to originate the ICC investigation or prosecution). In such situations the country where the crimes occurred is presumably not in favor of ICC involvement, or it would have made a referral in the first place. (Yes, a State Party, where there has been proprio motu initiation owes Rome Statute cooperation obligations, but these do not always seem to carry the day.)

Where the UN Security Council has referred the situation, one might imagine the Court’s authority would be the strongest, because it could be backed up by the coercive enforcement powers of the UN Security Council. But we all know, this has never happened, and far from exerting the strongest compliance-pull, the situation of Security Council referrals has resulted in no effective follow-up. So here too, the Court is left to try to obtain cooperation from a state that has never sought its intervention and not voluntarily joined the Rome Statute system—so it neither supports the cases being brought, nor does it necessarily support the ICC in any way. Thus, far from the ICC’s power being at its height (which it could be with proper UN Security Council support), the ICC’s power is likely at its lowest ebb.

This then leaves only situations where the State Party has made a self-referral (which presumably means the State would like the ICC to prosecute either rebels or ex-regime officials); only in these situations does one expect the State Party actually has cause to cooperate—but only insofar as the ICC’s work remains aligned with State goals (that is, the prosecutions remain only directed towards rebels or ex-regime officials). In short, the ICC has built-in structural difficulties, stemming from the voluntary nature of the Rome Statute system and a need to rely upon state cooperation. The moment the ICC’s actions do not accord with a state’s self-perceived interests (judged by those in power at the time), the State Party can refuse to cooperate and/or leave the Rome Statute system entirely, as Burundi has now done.

Given all these difficulties, what more can be done to support the ICC?

First, there should be widespread condemnation of Burundi by States Parties at the upcoming International Criminal Court’s Assembly of States Parties. When a country turns its back on justice for the worse crimes of concern to the international community, it is turning its back on its own citizens, prioritizing perceived self-interest in helping perpetuate impunity. (States Parties might also commend The Gambia and South Africa—countries that initially seemed poised on also withdrawing, but ultimately reversed their withdrawals.) A clear distinction should be made between States Parties committed to ensuring accountability for Rome Statute crimes, and non-States Parties, who lack the conviction to endorse the rule of law.

Second, the difficulties the Court is having in terms of non-cooperation need to be more effectively addressed. At present, the Assembly of States Parties is still not playing an effective role in dealing with non-cooperation. An effective role, is one that would impose consequences for violations; absent serious ramifications, non-cooperation will continue. And, of course, most to blame is the UN Security Council. Why make a referral if there is no will to ensure it is effective? One would think the UN Security Council would be concerned about its referral being seen as impotent when it fails to provide follow-up. Perhaps the Prosecutor can state this more forcefully to the Council (although she probably already has) — that by failing to follow up on referrals, the Security Council is undermining not only the ICC’s authority, but also the Security Council’s own authority.

Third, we should be most concerned for the people of Burundi, who will now be effectively unprotected at the international level if crimes against humanity and war crimes are perpetrated against them. Crimes committed prior to the date of Burundi’s withdrawal, would still be within the ICC’s jurisdiction, and could in theory be prosecuted in the future (as the ICC has an open Preliminary Examination). But these could become hard to investigate and/or prosecute if Burundi refuses to cooperate (which we can now assume, despite its treaty obligations to cooperate, which would technically continue). As to ongoing and future crimes one should explore a UN Security Council referral of the situation in Burundi, so the ICC would continue to have jurisdiction going forward—but only if the UN Security Council also agrees to ensure follow-up to make its referral meaningful.

A Dissenting Opinion on the ICC and Burundi

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, Burundi has just become the first state to formally withdraw from the ICC. The OTP has been examining the situation in Burundi since April 2016, but it did not formally ask the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to authorize an investigation prior to Burundi’s withdrawal becoming effective. So what does Burundi’s withdrawal mean for the OTP’s preliminary examination (PE)? Can the OTP still ask the PTC to authorize an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi prior to withdrawal? Or does Burundi’s withdrawal divest the Court of jurisdiction over the situation?

The relevant provision is Art. 127(2) of the Rome Statute (my emphasis):

A State shall not be discharged, by reason of its withdrawal, from the obligations arising from this Statute while it was a Party to the Statute, including any financial obligations which may have accrued. Its withdrawal shall not affect any cooperation with the Court in connection with criminal investigations and proceedings in relation to which the withdrawing State had a duty to cooperate and which were commenced prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective, nor shall it prejudice in any way the continued consideration of any matter which was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective.

The ICC is taking the position that Art. 127(2)’s bolded language means Burundi’s withdrawal does not affect the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed prior to the date the withdrawal became effective — 28 October 2017. It does not explain why, but the argument is relatively straightforward: (1) the PE in Burundi began prior to 28 October 2017; (2) a PE qualifies as a “matter”; (3) the OTP is part of the Court. Hence (4) the Burundi PE “was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective” and the Court continues to have jurisdiction over (“consider”) the situation.

A number of commentators agree with the ICC’s position, including Amnesty International and Beitel van der Merwe. The only dissenting voice is Dov Jacobs, who is skeptical about point (2) — whether a PE really qualifies as a “matter” for purposes of Art. 127(2). Here is what he says:

The key issue is what is covered by the expression “any matter already under consideration by the Court”. Alex Whiting makes the argument that this expression is broad enough to cover preliminary examinations by the OTP. Possibly, he is right from a linguistic point of view. However, I have a difficulty with the idea that such an informal phase as a preliminary examination (which might simply involve an OTP investigator sitting in front of his computer in The Hague downloading HRW and Amnesty International reports) might have such massive consequences as trumping the decision of a State to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

I agree with Dov. As is well known, the OTP divides the preliminary-examination process into four phases: (1) determining whether a situation falls “manifestly outside” of the ICC’s jurisdiction; (2) determining whether there is a reasonable basis to believe an international crime was committed in the situation; (3) assessing admissibility; (4) assessing the interests of justice. According to the OTP, a “formal” PE begins with Phase 2 (emphasis mine):

80. Phase 2, which represents the formal commencement of a preliminary examination of a given situation, focuses on whether the preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction under article 12 are satisfied and whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that the alleged crimes fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court. Phase 2 analysis is conducted in respect of all article 15 communications that were not rejected in Phase 1, as well as of information arising from referrals by a State Party or the Security Council, declarations lodged pursuant to article 12(3), open source information, and testimony received at the seat of the Court.

Dov’s example of the OTP investigator downloading HRW or AI reports about a situation is thus spot on. Because such reports are “open source information,” the very act of looking at it means that a PE is at Phase 2 and a “formal” PE has commenced. Which means in turn that — according to the ICC’s interpretation of Art. 127(2) — the Court retains jurisdiction over the situation in the report. (And retains it in perpetuity, because there is no time limit on an OTP decision to advance a PE to a full investigation, as the 13 year-old Colombia PE indicates.)

Like Dov, I am not sure “matter” can or should be interpreted to include any formal PE, even one triggered by an OTP investigator (or even an intern?) downloading an NGO report (or even just reading it on the screen?). But I think there is a more important question about the ICC’s interpretation of Art. 127(2): whether a situation is under “consideration by the Court” simply by virtue of the OTP preliminarily examining it. Alex Whiting believes that it is (emphasis mine):

There is a decent but far from certain argument that jurisdiction should survive at least for any crimes that are the subject of a preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor before the date of a State Party’s effective withdrawal. Following the broad first sentence of Article 127(2), the provision addresses two specific situations: (1) when an investigation or proceeding is underway before effective withdrawal, the departing State Party continues to have a legal duty to cooperate with the Court’s inquiry even after the State Party has left the Court, and (2) the State Party’s departure cannot prejudice the Court’s “consideration of any matter” that was already underway before departure. The “Court” in the Rome Statute refers to the entire ICC, including the Prosecutor, and not just the judges.

I disagree. There is no question that “the Court” sometimes refers to “the entire ICC,” such as when the Rome Statute is referring generically to the ICC’s location or international legal personality. Indeed, Art. 34 says that “the Court” is composed of the Presidency, the judiciary, the OTP, and the Registry.

But the Rome Statute also uses “the Court” in a more restrictive fashion — to refer specifically to the judiciary, excluding the OTP. Here are some examples:

[1] Art. 19(3) provides that “[t]he Prosecutor may seek a ruling from the Court regarding a question of jurisdiction or admissibility.”

[2] Art. 19(7) provides that “[i]f a challenge is made by a State referred to in paragraph 2 (b) or (c), the Prosecutor shall suspend the investigation until such time as the Court makes a determination in accordance with article 17.”

[3] Art. 19(10) provides that “[i]f the Court has decided that a case is inadmissible under article 17, the Prosecutor may submit a request for a review of the decision.”

[4] Art. 21(2) provides that “[t]he Court may apply principles and rules of law as interpreted in its previous decisions.” The OTP doesn’t issue decisions.

[5] Art. 65(5) provides that “[a]ny discussions between the Prosecutor and the defence regarding modification of the charges, the admission of guilt or the penalty to be imposed shall not be binding on the Court.”

[6] Art. 66(3) provides that, “[i]n order to convict the accused, the Court must be convinced of the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.”

[7] Art. 67(2) provides that, with regard to the rights of the defendant, “[i]n case of doubt as to the application of this paragraph, the Court shall decide.”

I could go on. The point is that, contra Alex, we cannot simply assume that Art. 127(2)’s reference to “the Court” includes both the judiciary and the OTP. It may well be that Art. 127(2) refers only to the judiciary. The distinction, of course, is critical in the context of Burundi’s withdrawal: if a matter must be “under consideration by” the judiciary for Art. 127(2) to apply, then the OTP’s failure to open an investigation into the situation means that the Court (writ large) no longer has jurisdiction over any crimes committed in Burundi — not even over those committed prior to the date Burundi’s withdrawal became effective.

I cannot claim with absolute certainty that the more restrictive reading of Art. 127(2) is correct, especially as Amnesty International says that the travaux preparatoires do not shed any light on the issue. But it seems like the much stronger position. Most importantly, the precise expression “under consideration by the Court” also appears in Art. 95, which deals with the postponement of requests in connection with admissibility challenges (emphasis mine):

Where there is an admissibility challenge under consideration by the Court pursuant to article 18 or 19, the requested State may postpone the execution of a request under this Part pending a determination by the Court, unless the Court has specifically ordered that the Prosecutor may pursue the collection of such evidence pursuant to article 18 or 19.

“Under consideration by the Court” in Art. 95 clearly means “under consideration by the judiciary.” Normal rules of treaty interpretation thus suggest that the same expression in Art. 127(2) is similarly restrictive.

This interpretation of Art. 127(2) is also supported by the problem Dov identifies — that deeming any PE a “matter” gives the OTP so much power that the withdrawal provision is a virtual nullity. A PE does indeed seem like a “matter,” but that does not mean a PE is a matter “under consideration by the Court.” The better view is that a situation is only “under consideration by the Court” once the OTP asks the PTC to authorize an investigation into that situation.

The upshot of all of this is that, in my view, the Court no longer has jurisdiction over crimes committed on the territory of Burundi prior to the state’s withdrawal from the ICC. If the OTP had wanted to keep alive the situation, it needed to ask the PTC before 28 October 2017 for permission to open an investigation. And it failed to do so.

International Law Pays No Homage to Catalonia’s Declaration of Independence

by Julian Ku

International law is famously mushy and subject to a variety of interpretations.  But there are some issues upon which there is more consensus under international law, such as the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  But is there any reasonable argument favoring the legality of the Catalan Parliament’s recent declaration of independence from Spain?  I don’t think so.

At the outset, it is worth reminding ourselves, as Chris does in this post on Crimea, that there is no right to secede under international law. Chris argues that secession is a factual question: it has either occurred or it has not occurred.  But he says that legality of secession remains contested by international lawyers.

I agree with Chris that there is no right to secede under international law (see my post on Calexit here), but I would add that secession is generally only legal under international law when the parent state gives consent to secession.  Such consent might occur after a civil war or rebellion, but it seems a necessary formality to legalize a secession.  On the flip side, as is the case in both Spain or the United States, the domestic law of a parent country usually prohibits secession absent such consent.  Section 2 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 begins by declaring that is based on “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the 1869 Texas v. White decision that “[w]hen Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation,”

Thus, there is no international legal right to secede, and it is usually (and appears clearly) illegal for Catalonia to do so under Spanish constitutional law.  It is for this reason that I do not think there is any reasonable argument that the Catalan declaration of independence is lawful or protected by international law.

The Catalans might (and do) fall back on invocations of the international right of self-determination.  Such a right does indeed exist under international law, but it is highly doubtful that such a right justifies secession in the case of Catalan. The right of self-determination does not guarantee the right of secession.  Moreover, as the Supreme Court of Canada rightly held in the case of Quebec:

A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self-determination in its own internal arrangements, is entitled to the protection under international law of its territorial integrity.

Unlike Serbia under Milosevic with respect to Kosovars, Spain is a state which has granted Catalonians representation on the basis of equality and without discrimination. It is also not a situation of decolonization, as Professor Sterio explained on OJ here.   I just don’t see a credible argument here that the situation of the Catalonians triggers some kind of “external” right of self-determination.

Does this matter? At the margins, the lack of legality for the Catalans’ declaration of independence probably bolsters the unwillingness of any foreign state to recognize Catalonia as an independent state. I am doubtful legality is decisive here, but it certainly weakens what is already a pretty weak Catalan case for independence.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

Events and Announcements: October 22, 2017

by Jessica Dorsey


  • ASIL presents “International Law and the Trump Administration: The Use of Force under International Law” Online, Monday, October 30 at 2:00 PM ET. This live online briefing, the eighth in the American Society of International Law’s series on “International Law and the Trump Administration,” will feature former senior U.S. officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations who were responsible for formulating policy and advising the Executive Branch on issues involving the use of force and the law of armed conflict. They will discuss the international legal principles that apply to the permissible use of force by nation states and the extent to which those principles serve as an effective constraint on aggression, and will examine the interplay between international law, domestic legislation, and Executive Branch policies that US officials consider in determining whether a given exercise of armed force is legally permissible. Jack Goldsmith (Harvard Law School, former Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice and former special counsel, Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense) and Oona Hathway (Yale Law School, former special counsel, Office of the General Counsel for National Security Law, U.S. Department of Defense) will discuss these issues with moderator, Laura Dickinson (George Washington University School of Law, former senior policy adviser, U.S. Department of State.). More information about the series and this briefing is available at

If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

China’s Rising Geolegal Sphere

by Malcolm Jorgensen

[Malcolm Jorgensen is a Research Fellow at the Berlin Potsdam Research Group “International Law–Rise or Decline?”]

In their new book The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro assert that Chinese occupation of maritime features in the South China Sea is “worth little as long as the rest of the world refuses to recognize them.” That conclusion follows a sophisticated argument that legal prohibitions against territorial conquest, tracing back to 1928, remain the necessary source of legitimacy for exercising effective global power. Evidence from the South China Sea, however, suggests an important exception to this claim, with China increasingly demonstrating effective exercise of regional power without the authority of international law.

The observation that international law facilitates effective power turns on a globally recognised order in which legal rules inform states’ rational calculations about what actions will likely be challenged as threats to that order. In Hathaway and Shapiro’s words: “Real power—power useful for achieving important political objectives—does not exist in the absence of law. Law creates real power. States can reach their goals only if others recognize the results of their actions.” To demonstrate this point, they argue that the outlawing of war in the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact ensured that Japan’s 1931 occupation of Manchuria yielded little benefit, since “it was not enough if no one treated Manchuria as Manchukuo.” The “Stimson Doctrine” of 1932 confirmed this as US policy against recognising territorial claims achieved by conquest.

Excessive Chinese maritime claims are plainly illegal, with the “Nine-Dash line” they have long been based upon firmly discredited in the 2016 award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, initiated by the Philippines. Yet China now enjoys unchallenged de facto possession of the artificial island features it claims, which have been described as “unsinkable aircraft carriers” allowing the projection of military power far from China’s mainland. Of the seven artificial islands, up to three may be capable of accommodating fighter jets, being equipped with runways, radars and surface-to-air missiles. Likewise, physical possession secures potential Chinese access to maritime resources it has long claimed.

Moreover, the relative decline of US power in the region ensures there is now no reasonable prospect of China being dislodged from its possession of these features – the calculus of the military violence required to disrupt the status quo favours no state or coalition of states. The US military conducts freedom-of-navigation operations, and calls on allies to support them in emphasising the illegitimacy of China’s possession. But this does not extend to measures for returning the region to a legitimate situation under international law. Southeast Asian leaders have now dropped criticisms of “land reclamation and militarization” long included in official statements. The calculus has already shifted from preventing to managing Chinese occupation.

The limitation of The Internationalists is that it does not take account of the way that international law is refracted through geographical configurations of power and thus operates in differentiated ways across regions. The Asia-Pacific now resembles a “geolegal” sphere of Chinese influence, in which China’s growing regional dominance over multilateral institutions and legal development amplifies its rising geopolitical power. China’s primary geostrategic interest is to establish uncontested military power within its “near seas,” rather than global hegemony, and is now leveraging its geolegal sphere to shift states towards acquiescence to a nationalist maritime order, and away from international law.

China’s geolegal sphere is built on its record as an effective rule maker – leading a major diplomatic defeat in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against US objections and promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as a free trade alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Proponents of Chinese integration into existing rules and institutions have long argued that a Chinese stake commensurate to its growing power will ultimately complement the existing legal order, and is therefore “unlikely to undo the rules, norms, and structures that exist today.” Yet China’s greater legal role arguably now enables rather than constrains incentives to carve out zones of non-law in the maritime domain that are insulated against legal sanctions.

Increasing geolegal power manifests as pressure on states to accede to China’s will, including its preference to resolve disputes bilaterally rather than through legal institutions. In 2012 the Philippines deployed navel assets to protect the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which provoked Chinese economic retaliation – ranging from tourism bans to leaving tonnes of banana imports rotting at port. Increasing governance of international economic rules will only heighten such powers, and increase costs of opposition. The Philippines has now effectively set aside the definitive 2016 legal ruling made in its favour, to pursue a joint development agreement with China. This so-called “modus vivendi” leaves the status quo legal position of China undisturbed, who frames the agreement as a mere political concession.

The submission of the Philippines speaks to a broader dynamic in China’s favour, which is the unwillingness of individual states to risk isolation when openly defying Beijing. This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma, in which China divides and conquers opponents until they submit to its rules whether legal or not. The core problem for the arbitral ruling, and the broader legal system it represents, is that they are now sufficiently detached from regional geopolitical power that China can openly assert alternative non-legal principles for allocating rights and resources, and that these facilitate effective use of political power. As between the pronouncements of the PCA and the CPC, the latter’s account is increasingly a more accurate description of effective rules operating in the South China Sea.

China continues to assert claims in the language and symbols of international law, but drawn from “historical rights” as a concept largely unknown to the law. China’s latest iteration of the Nine-Dash Line adapts the rules of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea itself to make territorial claims around the “Four Sha” island groups located within that line. Yet these are rights only available to an archipelagic state – which China is not. At best these various claims resemble “Folk International Law”: “a law-like discourse that relies on a confusing and soft admixture of [principles] to frame operations that do not, ultimately, seem bound by international law.” Yet, the geographically limited aim of controlling China’s near seas means that lack of global legal recognition is of secondary relevance. China’s sui generis rules now inform states’ rational calculations about what actions will likely be challenged as threats to the existing order.

The assumption of a positive relationship between a rising Chinese stake in the international legal system and respect for that system does not appear to be holding, as China leverages its geolegal sphere to carve out a maritime domain of non-compliance. There is thus no prospect of returning to an Asia-Pacific in which maritime order aligns with the rules set out in UNCLOS – previously signed or ratified by all states in the region, including China. Continued denial of the legality of this nascent order remains crucial, as it undoubtedly renders Chinese power less efficient, but the terms of UNCLOS are no longer an effective blueprint for rational behaviour by regional stakeholders.

Hathaway and Shapiro’s conclusions are dangerous if they treat the ideal of the rule of international law as a description of political reality. Their own argument concludes that the foundation of an effective international legal order remains American willingness to underpin it with real hard power – the continuation of Pax Americana. Here the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the TPP may well have foreclosed the last major initiative capable of meaningfully slowing the transfer of geolegal power. The TPP was crucial not merely as the embodiment of liberal trading rules, but as a demonstration of the US role as anchor to that order. The region is now witnessing the global pretentions of international law following the fate of fragmenting geopolitical power.

The South China Sea remains an ongoing dialogue between embryonic Chinese maritime rules and the rule of international law, but one that will be increasingly difficult to untangle. The anchor of Western legal policy in a regional “rules-based order” is thus almost literally one embedded in shifting sands. The strategic objective for regional stakeholders should be effective geolegal balancing by denying the lawfulness of Chinese claims, but as complimentary rather than an alternative to effectively balancing geopolitical power. Failing to defend the rule of international law will ensure that the pockets of non-law asserted by a single state expand to eclipse the previous order, and ultimately become international law itself.

Events and Announcements: October 8, 2017

by Jessica Dorsey

Call for Papers

  • The Military Law and the Law of War Review / Revue de Droit Militaire et de Droit de la Guerre is a journal specialised in matters of interest for both civilian and military legal advisors as well as legal scholars and academics. Published since 1962, it is among the oldest publications at the international level in the areas of military/security law and the law of war. For decades, the Review has been an important forum of discussion for scholars and practitioners from all over the world. For its coming issue (vol. 55/2), the Review’s editorial board welcomes submissions from scholars and practitioners that come within the broader scope of the Review (including military law, law of armed conflict, law on the use of force, as well as international criminal law and human rights law (inasmuch as related to situations of armed conflict)). The deadline for submission is 15 November 2017. Submissions should be sent by e-mail to brussels [at] ismllw [dot] org and will be subject to double-blind peer review. Articles should normally not be longer than 15.000 words (footnotes included), although longer pieces may exceptionally be considered. Inquiries as to whether a possible submission comes within the scope of the Review can be sent to the abovementioned e-mail address. Selected papers will be published online on the Review’s website in advance access (in a non-downloadable and non-printable form) as well as on Hein Online following editing and type-setting. The print version of the issue is scheduled to come out in Spring 2018.


  • The European Research Council funded research project on “The Individualization of War: Reconfiguring the Ethics, Law, and Politics of Armed Conflict”, based at the European University Institute, Florence & the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict seeks a postdoctoral researcher. The successful applicant will work closely with Professor Dapo Akande (who is based in Oxford and is co-investigator on the project). She or he will conduct research on the application of human rights law in armed conflict and on the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law.  Candidates should have an outstanding PhD in international law but should be excited about working in an inter-disciplinary team which includes international relations scholars and moral philosophers. The position is for one year and will start in December 2017 or January 2018. Further details on the project is available here the position. Full details about the position and the application process can be found here.
  • At the occasion of its bicentennial, the Faculty of Law of Ghent University will host a two-day international conference on 7 and 8 December 2017 entitled ‘Freedom under Pressure’. The conference will gather legal scholars and practitioners to discuss key fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure in three distinct areas: (1) property protection; (2) data protection and privacy, and (3) freedom of movement in the EU. Panels will tackle a range of issues, including, for instance, the use and abuse of international investment arbitration, immunity from execution, or the use of targeted financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool. Confirmed speakers include Judge James Crawford (International Court of Justice), Judge Siofra O’Leary (European Court of Human Rights), Judge Allan Rosas (Court of Justice of the EU), Prof. Joseph Cannataci (UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy) and Mr. Gilles de Kerchove (EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator). The full programme as well as further practical information is available on the conference website. Early-bird registration rates expire on 15 October.

If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

Upcoming Event on UN Accountability

by Kristen Boon

I am pleased to announce an upcoming experts workshop on UN Accountability on October 19 at Seton Hall Law School.

This workshop will explore the liability of International Organizations for international wrongs, as well address direct, indirect or shared responsibility. It will offer a detailed examination of accountability, and what models of external and internal international dispute resolution currently exist, and should exist in the future. In light of the recent suggestion that victims of international wrongs should be made whole by charitable contributions, it will also discuss redress and compensation for victims of international wrongs.  

The keynote address will be given by Professor Philip Alston on The Strengths and Weaknesses of External Accountability.

The program will end with a book launch of the Research Handbook on UN Sanctions and International Law, edited by Professor Larissa van den Herik.

We would welcome participants interested in the subject. After the event, a group will go to the opening panel of ILW at the NYC Bar Association.

For the complete program, and to RSVP please see the webpage here.


Apparently Perfidy Is Not Prohibited in 2256

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just started watching Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Star Trek series in a decade. It’s excellent — dark, well-acted, with beautiful special affects. But I have to say that it was shocking to see the Captain of a Federation starship engage in a blatantly perfidious act in the second episode. The Federation has just come out on the losing end of a major battle with the Klingons. Captain Georgiou transports a photon torpedo into the torso of a dead Klingon, the lead Klingon ship retrieves the dead Klingon for burial, and… boom, the Klingon ship is disabled, with hundreds if not thousands dead.

As I have explained in a scholarly article, it is perfidious to use a booby-trap in a manner that violates the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. Art. 2(4) of the Protocol defines a booby-trap as “any device or material which is designed, constructed or adapted to kill or injure, and which functions unexpectedly when a person disturbs or approaches an apparently harmless object or performs an apparently safe act.” And Art. 7(1)(b) specifically provides that “it is prohibited in all circumstances to use booby-traps and other devices which are in any way attached to or associated with… sick, wounded or dead persons.” Captain Georgiou’s use of a booby-trapped dead Klingon to disable the Klingon ship was thus unequivocally perfidious.

The Star Trek universe always presents the Federation as the height of legal and moral rectitude. At least for one episode of Star Trek: Discovery, that was not the case.

The Kampala Amendments on the Crime of Aggression Before Activation: Evaluating the Legal Framework of a Political Compromise (Part 2)

by Astrid Reisinger Coracini

[Astrid Reisinger Coracini is is Lecturer at the University of Salzburg and Director of the Salzburg Law School on International Criminal Law, Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law (SLS). This is the second of a two-part post on the subject. The first can be found here.] 

1. Does the non-application of Art. 121(5) second sentence violate the law of treaties?

Article 40(4) of the Vienna Convention in the Law of Treaties (VCLT) stipulates that unless the treaty provides otherwise, ‘[t]he amending agreement does not bind any State already a party to the treaty which does not become a party to the amending agreement’. The rule reflects the consent principle, which is also the basis of the general rule regarding third States formulated in Art. 34 VCLT, ‘[a] treaty does not create either obligations or rights for a third State without its consent’.

The Rome Statute does provide otherwise than the VCLT in its general amendment procedure. Art. 121(4) of the Statute foresees an entry into force erga omnes partes after acceptance of an amendment by seven-eighths of the States parties. The Statute also provides otherwise for amendments to provisions of an institutional nature, which are expressly listed in Art. 122. The amendment procedure according to Art. 121(5), on the other hand, follows the default rule. The first sentence of Art. 121(5) guarantees that an amendment (to articles 5 to 8 of the Statute) only enters into force for those States parties that have accepted it. Differently, Art. 121(5) second sentence does not deal with questions of treaty law but with the consequences of exercising (international) criminal jurisdiction over individuals. It defines conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction over crimes covered by an amendment and it thereby establishes a separate jurisdictional regime, different from Part 2 of the Statute.

Art. 15bis equally establishes a distinct jurisdictional regime, which differs from Part 2 of the Statute as well as from Art. 121(5). The common denominator, however, is that all three jurisdictional regimes, the one under Part 2, the one under Art. 121(5), and the one based on Art. 5(2), may affect nationals or the territory of a State that has not accepted the treaty or an amendment and that is consequently not bound by them. Whether the consequences of the exercise of international criminal jurisdiction over individuals (the Court’s jurisdictional reach) are binding or in any way create obligations or rights for third States was extensively discussed in the aftermath of the Rome Conference. The general view has been that consequences of the jurisdictional reach do not affect treaty relations and that there was no requirement of State consent for the exercise of (international) criminal jurisdiction. Consequently, the Court’s jurisdictional reach does not establish a new treaty regime, let alone one with obligations erga omnes. The requirement of 30 ratifications remains a condition for the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression.

The aggression amendments also do not establish cooperation obligations for States parties that do not adhere to them. It has been argued that a general obligation to cooperate fully with the Court in its investigation and prosecution of the crime of aggression already stems from Art. 86, which, at the time of adoption, acceptance or ratification of the Statute, referred to all ‘crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court’. If such a general duty to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of crime of aggression did not exist in the Statute prior to the aggression amendments, but was created by them, it would only create obligations for States that accept them.

What remains, is the claim that the non-application of Art. 121(5) second sentence violates a treaty right that was established by the Statute for States parties to shield their nationals and their territory from the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction of the crime of aggression. Still, the same right is granted to States parties under the aggression amendments. The dispute is consequently reduced to the modification that while Art. 121(5) second sentence grants this right unconditionally, under the Kampala compromise it is granted upon declaration. However, this claim remains a theoretical one. If Art. 121(5) does not apply to the provision on aggression in the first place, the aggression amendments cannot affect any obligations or rights of States parties enshrined therein. The same is true, if the application of Art. 121(5) second sentence is subjected to the mandate of setting out conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction under Art. 5(2). In that case, all obligations and rights would lawfully be subjected to possible alterations within the mandate of Art. 5(2).

2. Does the non-application of Art. 121(5) second sentence violate general international law?

It has been argued that the crime of aggression is different from the other three core crimes because it requires the Court to determine a question of State responsibility as a precondition for the exercise of jurisdiction and that the determination of an act of aggression may require consent of the States concerned [for a detailed discussion, see Astrid Reisinger Coracini & Pal Wrange, ‘Is the Crime of Aggression Different from the other Crimes under International Law?’ in: Claus Kreß/Stefan Barriga (eds.), The Crime of Aggression – A Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2016) p. 307-350].

The discussion is somewhat moot as the jurisdictional regime established by the aggression amendments is factually a consent-based regime. The Kampala compromise imposes an even stricter regime than Art. 121(5) second sentence. The requirement of a double consent (of the State where the conduct occurred and of the State of nationality of the accused) for the exercise of jurisdiction is required with regard to States parties and non-States parties. But independent of the Kampala compromise, is there a consent requirement under international law for the exercise of jurisdiction of the crime of aggression?

A noteworthy case was made in that regard on the basis of the ICJ’s jurisprudence based on Monetary Gold Removed from Rome in 1943 (Italy v. France, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and United States of America). The consent principle is without doubt a fundamental principle under international law. It also underlies the jurisdiction of international courts adjudicating disputes between States and was therefore applied by the ICJ and other consent based jurisdictions in proceedings against States. It is however contended whether the principle is directly applicable in the context of international criminal jurisdictions, the consequences of which may affect nationals or the territory of non-consenting States, in proceedings against individuals.

Even under the ICJ’s consent-based jurisdictional regime, an indirect determination of acts of non-consenting States may be possible, if it remains without legal consequences for these States. In Certain Phosphate Lands in Nauru (Nauru v. Australia), the ICJ held that it was in no way precluded from adjudicating upon the claims against one out of three States that shared responsibility in the administration of the territory in question, provided the legal interests of the third States which might possibly be affected did not form the actual subject-matter of the requested decision.

It is undisputed that an act of aggression by a State is one of the elements of the definition of the crime of aggression that needs to be established for individual criminal responsibility to arise. Assessing the elements of a crime is not a formal determination of State responsibility. It requires the establishment of facts and their legal evaluation as a precondition for reaching a verdict. There are no consequences for a State that follow from the Court’s determination of an act of aggression. The ‘very subject-matter’ of the Court’s decision remains the innocence or guilt of an individual.

The ‘requirement’ to determine an act of State may be unique to the crime of aggression, however, this distinction is merely semantic. A consent requirement cannot be based on the frequency of the determination of an act of State but it is a matter of principle. Either the determination of an act of State by an international criminal jurisdiction requires State consent or not. In that regard, all four core crimes can be (and frequently are) committed by State organs. Each determination of guilt or innocence of an organ of a State or any other person whose conduct is attributable to a State, comprises ipso facto a determination of an act of State. This indirect determination of State responsibility has not been an obstacle to establishing a Court with jurisdiction over nationals of non-consenting States.

In conclusion

  1. The political compromise that was reached in Kampala excludes the application of Art. 121(5) second sentence to the crime of aggression. This non-applicability can be reasonably argued on the basis of the relevant provisions of the Rome Statute.
  2. Art. 121(5) is not the starting point but one out of several possible answers to the question which procedure applies to the provision of aggression. The mandate of Art. 5(2) to adopt such a provision is vague and allows for different interpretations. While there were competing claims as to which procedure was the best position under international law, a full application of Art. 121(5) was only one of them. The compromise decision taken in Kampala is based on a different legal position, which acknowledges the special position of the crime of aggression under the Statute, and which was overwhelmingly supported by a majority of States.
  3. The majority understanding of Art. 121(5) second sentence is that it establishes a specific jurisdictional regime for crimes covered by an amendment, which differs from Part 2 of the Statute. The Kampala compromise does not establish agreement on a different reading of Art. 121(5) second sentence. The Kampala compromise establishes agreement on a reading of Art. 5(2) and Art. 12(1) that leads to the non-applicability of Art. 121(5) second sentence to the crime of aggression.
  4. If Art. 121(5) second sentence does not apply, the aggression amendments cannot infringe upon a right, enshrined in this sentence. The agreement reached at the Review Conference, which is based on one of several possible and reasonable interpretations of the applicable law, cannot violate rights a State may have enjoyed if an alternative interpretation had been agreed upon. This simply falls beyond the scope of Art. 34 and Art. 40(4) VCLT.
  5. Consent to be bound by a treaty and consent to the jurisdictional reach by the Court are two separate matters. Only States that adhere to the aggression amendments are bound by them (as a matter of treaty law). The fact that nationals or the territory of a State may be affected by the exercise of the Court’s criminal jurisdiction over individuals does not qualify as a binding effect for that State.
  6. It is difficult to comprehend how a view that the Court cannot exercise its jurisdiction regarding the crime of aggression over nationals of a State or committed on the territory of a States unless that State accepts or ratifies the aggression amendments could be ‘clarified’ without re-opening the text of the amendments. Any subsequent agreement in that regard would clearly reverse the contents of the compromise of Kampala and refute the negotiations process. It would also pose difficulties for the 35 States that have taken legal steps on the basis of the Kampala compromise.
  7. Reopening the compromise, which was a package deal, would not only affect the exercise of jurisdiction over a crime of aggression, arising from an act of aggression by a State party that does not adhere to the aggression amendments. It would equally affect other components of the compromise. If Art. 5(2) was not the legal basis to establish conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression that might differ from Part 2 and from Art. 121(5) second sentence, Art. 15bis and Art. 15ter would need to be interpreted through the jurisdictional regime of 121(5). This would undermine compromise decisions relating to the opt-out regime, the preferential treatment of opting-out States parties as victims of an act of aggression, referrals by the Security Council, and ultimately the exercise of jurisdiction over nationals and the territory of non-States parties.
  8. It was suggested that the opt-out regime of Art.15bis would not be deprived of its meaning if interpreted in light of Art. 121(5) second sentence, because it could allow States parties to opt out in order to fall within the Court’s jurisdictional protection as a victim of aggression. But there is no rational consolidated reading of these two provisions. An interpretation that suggests an opt-out from a jurisdictional regime that States do not consider themselves ‘in’ is unreasonable.
  9. Furthermore, the possibility to opt out of the Court’s jurisdictional reach was a concession to those States parties that believed they had acquired a right under Art. 121(5) second sentence to be exempt from the effects of the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. The drafters transposed such a right to the aggression amendments. In order to counterweigh the requisite of depositing a (low impact, yet public) declaration, they even added another right. States parties that opt out in accordance with Art. 15bis, remain under the Court’s protection should they become a victim of an act of aggression. This additional privilege was not given to States parties without a cause. It was a trade-off in order to establish consensus on the basis of the non-applicability of Art. 121(5) second sentence.

At the upcoming session of the Assembly of States Parties, it will be the responsibility of States to defend the compromise they have reached at the Kampala Review Conference. Discussions on the crime of aggression and the jurisdiction of an international criminal court over this crime have started at the time of the League of Nations and they could be easily continued ad infinitum; but it is time for a closure. It lies in the nature of a compromise decision that it cannot reflect all positions. States which supported a meaningful exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression under the existing framework of the Statute have succeeded in upholding some structural principles, but have made major concessions when it comes to the factual exercise of jurisdiction by the Court. In that regard, the Kampala compromise was particularly sensitive towards the concerns of some States. Eventually, the aggression amendments are not all that was wished for, but evidently, they are what lies on the table and what will be subjected to an activation decision in December.

Against the never-ending fascination to discuss legal aspects of one sentence of one article of the Rome Statute, the larger issues at stake must not be let out of sight. The Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression should not be considered a mere nuisance when it comes to a decision on the use of armed force. Even under a narrow definition and with limited jurisdiction, the crime of aggression still protects one of the fundamental principles of international law, the prohibition of the use of force. Seven years after Kampala, the significance and urgency of strengthening the protecting scope of this principle unfortunately seems to have increased rather than declined.