Against (False) Consensus — the ASP and the Aggression Amendments

by Kevin Jon Heller

Although many important issues will be discussed this week at the Assembly of States Parties (ASP), none will be quite so momentous as the decision to activate the ICC’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the definition of aggression, there is no question that the activation of jurisdiction will represent the culmination of seventy years of efforts to deem aggression an international crime.

When the ASP finally makes a decision concerning the aggression amendments, the Rome Statute will encourage it to do so by consensus. The relevant provision is Art. 112(7):

Each State Party shall have one vote. Every effort shall be made to reach decisions by consensus in the Assembly and in the Bureau. If consensus cannot be reached, except as otherwise provided in the Statute:

(a)     Decisions on matters of substance must be approved by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting provided that an absolute majority of States Parties constitutes the quorum for voting;

(b)     Decisions on matters of procedure shall be taken by a simple majority of States Parties present and voting.

With regard to amendments, the Rome Statute does “otherwise provide.” According to Art. 121(3), “[t]he adoption of an amendment at a meeting of the Assembly of States Parties or at a Review Conference on which consensus cannot be reached shall require a two-thirds majority of States Parties.” Similarly, Art. 123(3) says that “[t]he provisions of article 121, paragraphs 3 to 7, shall apply to the adoption and entry into force of any amendment to the Statute considered at a Review Conference.”

The aggression amendments were adopted by consensus at the 2010 Review Conference held in Kampala. That was a mistake, because there was no genuine consensus at Kampala concerning one particularly critical issue: whether the Court will have jurisdiction over an act of aggression committed on the territory of a state party that has ratified the aggression amendments by a national of a state party that has not ratified them. States have taken diametrically opposed positions on that issue. Most — led by Liechtenstein — believe that the Court will have jurisdiction in that situation unless the non-ratifying state formally opts-out of the crime of aggression. But some — led by Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom — insist that the Court will have no jurisdiction because non-ratification is enough.

I don’t want to re-litigate the merits of the debate. Regular readers know I agree with the Japan/Canada/UK group. My point is more modest: to call attention to the danger that false consensus poses to the legitimacy of the crime of aggression. By adopting the aggression amendments by consensus, instead of through a formal vote, the ASP made possible the kind of bitter disagreement that has characterized the state-party opt-out/opt-in debate. Just consider the following paragraphs from the ASP’s most recent report concerning the facilitation of aggression’s activation (emphasis mine):

19. Some delegations suggested that a declaration lodged with the Registrar, indicating that a State Party did not accept the jurisdiction of the Court over the crime of aggression, would bring the desired clarity. These delegations stressed that the negotiating history of the amendments during the Special Working Group on the Crime of Aggression as well as during the Review Conference offered clear evidence of the correct legal interpretation of the agreement reached in Kampala… By enabling States Parties to declare that they do not accept the jurisdiction of the Court in respect of crimes of aggression committed by their nationals (“opt-out”), the compromise agreed in Kampala had chosen the middle-ground between two opposing positions. It was explained that the Review Conference had considered the opposing position papers concerning the second sentence of article 121, paragraph 5, (the so-called “positive” and “negative” understandings), which both were ultimately deleted in favor of including the opt-out regime. As a result, in their view the compromise reached at the Review Conference was clear, and jurisdiction of the Court could extend to nationals of those States Parties which had not ratified the amendments, unless they opted out.

20. Other delegations took the view that too much emphasis was being placed on the negotiating history of the amendments and on concessions or compromises, rather than on legal principles and the plain meaning of the texts. These delegations explained that they had left the Review Conference with a different understanding, namely that the amendments would not apply to those States Parties which would not ratify them. In their view, open legal questions as to the implications of activation remained. These had not been solved during the seven years since the Review Conference, in spite of ratifications by 34 States Parties. It was pointed out that negotiations at the Review Conference could not have the effect of changing treaty rights and obligations. Accordingly, it was important to focus on the ordinary language of the text as there were differing understandings of the negotiating history, since it was also possible to explain the opt-out as something that was available to ratifying States Parties. These delegations questioned how they could be required to take action to opt out of the Court’s jurisdiction if they had not chosen to opt in by ratifying the amendments in the first place.

This is false consensus, not genuine consensus. State have been debating the opt-out/opt-in point for seven years as a result of the “consensus” at Kampala — debate that has overshadowed the importance of the aggression amendments themselves and has cost the ASP significant time that could have been better spent debating other issues.

Both camps deserve blame for this situation. The “opt-out” camp deserves blame for continuing to insist that genuine consensus existed at Kampala even though it’s quite clear it did not. And the “opt-in” camp deserves blame for permitting the aggression amendments to be adopted by consensus even though they knew disagreement existed about such a fundamental issue.

It will be interesting to see what happens this week at the ASP. There are rumblings — according to my well-connected friend Don Ferencz — that the opt-in group might put up a fight:

The member states of the Court will meet at UN headquarters in New York from December 4th to 14th to address making good on the pledge which they made in Kampala. Although 34 nations have already ratified their acceptance of the Court’s aggression jurisdiction – including over half of the members of NATO – Britain and France have not. Instead, they have joined with a handful of states, including Japan, Canada, Norway, and Colombia, in tacitly threatening to defeat activation of the Court’s aggression jurisdiction by their insistence that the Court must first clarify that the aggression amendments will not apply to leaders of any state that does not independently ratify them…

It is significant that the upcoming decision on aggression is expected to be undertaken pursuant to a consensus resolution. This means that the activation resolution must either be adopted by unanimous approval or not adopted at all. In such circumstances, each member state of the Court has the power to thwart the will of even an overwhelming majority simply by not consenting to the adoption resolution, regardless of the express terms of what was unanimously agreed to in Kampala. The non-ratifying countries which are demanding clarity that their leaders will remain beyond the Court’s reach on the crime of aggression, therefore, each have a potentially game-ending card to play in opposition of the final approval. The question is, with the whole world watching, do they dare play it?

My personal hope is that the opt-out camp will give in and accept the opt-in camp’s position that the Court will have no jurisdiction over a state party that does not ratify the aggression amendments — thereby creating genuine, if forced, consensus. Not only do I think that opt-in is the correct legal position, I am very skeptical that the opt-out camp would have enough votes to adopt the aggression amendments over the objections of the opt-in camp. According to paragraph 28 of the ASP’s facilitation report, they would need 82 in the absence of consensus. And that seems unlikely, given what I’ve heard about the number of states that are either opt-in or plan to abstain on any vote to activate the Court’s jurisdiction over aggression.

UPDATE: I have updated the post to mention Arts. 121(3) and 123(3) of the Rome Statute, as well as my understanding of the state of play concerning the vote to activate jurisdiction.

http://opiniojuris.org/2017/12/11/against-false-consensus/

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