The ICC’s Curious Dissolution of the Afghanistan Pre-Trial Chamber

by Kevin Jon Heller

Many ICC observers have been wondering why the Pre-Trial Chamber is taking so long to decide on the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. A little-noticed document filed by the Presidency on March 16 provides at least part of the explanation: because of  the recent judicial elections, the Presidency has dissolved the PTC that was handling the Afghanistan situation (PTC III) and reassigned the situation to a newly-constituted PTC (PTC II). Here is the relevant paragraph of the document:

HEREBY FURTHER DECIDES to reassign the situation in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire from Pre-Trial Chamber I to Pre-Trial Chamber II, to re-assign the situation in the Gabonese Republic from Pre-Trial Chamber II to Pre-Trial Chamber I and to re-assign the situations in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Republic of Burundi from Pre-Trial Chamber III to Pre-Trial Chamber II.

The Presiding Judge of PTC III, Judge Mindua, has been reassigned to PTC II, so he will continue to deal with the Afghanistan situation. But the other two judges assigned to the new PTC II, Judge Akane and Judge Aitala, have just been elected to the Court. So PTC II now has to essentially start over with regard to the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation. Here is Kate Clark on behalf of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN):

The Court had to re-assign the decision on Afghanistan to a new panel of judges (see details here). The new panel has had to start from scratch, wading through and considering all the material gathered on Afghanistan over the last decade. An ICC press release warned “it cannot be determined at present how many more weeks/months this process will take.”

I cannot find the quoted press release on the ICC’s website, but it makes sense that the Presidency’s assignment of two newly-elected judges to PTC II will slow down the Chamber’s analysis of the OTP’s request.

A question, however, still nags at me: given the importance of the Afghanistan decision — arguably one of the most momentous in the ICC’s history — and the fact that PTC III has been (actively) dealing with the OTP’s investigation request for nearly four months, why would the Presidency dissolve PTC III now? If the terms of the other two judges had expired, the decision would be understandable: even if the Presidency had assigned two experienced judges to the newly-constituted PTC II, those judges would have needed some time to familiarise themselves with the Afghanistan situation. But that is not what happened here: the Presidency simply reassigned the other PTC III judges — Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan — to the Trial Division. That is not only problematic in terms of the resulting delay, it also means (pursuant to Art. 39(4) of the Rome Statute) that neither Judge Chung nor Judge Pangalangan will be able to hear any case that comes out of the Afghanistan investigation.

Would it not have been better to leave PTC III alone until it made a decision on the OTP’s request to investigate? I don’t see anything in the Rome Statute that required the Presidency to reassign Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan. Judges assigned to the Pre-Trial Division normally serve for three years. Judge Pangalangan has three months left in his tenure (he was assigned to the Division on 15 July 2015), and although Judge Chung’s three years ended on March 11 (he joined the Division on that date in 2015), Art. 39(3) provides that judges who have served three years shall continue to serve “thereafter until the completion of any case the hearing of which has already commenced in the division concerned.” The language of Art. 39(3) is typically ambiguous regarding the situation/case distinction, but it’s at least arguable that the provision applies to a pending PTC decision concerning an investigation request. So, again, it does not appear that the Presidency had to reassign Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan.

Let me be clear: I am not imputing any nefarious motives to the Presidency. I don’t believe the dissolution of PTC III was some kind of backhanded ploy to prevent the OTP from investigating the Afghanistan situation. The new PTC II will eventually authorise the investigation — the personnel changes are just delaying the inevitable. Moreover, it may well be the case that, logistically, reassigning Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan could not be avoided. I have not systematically analysed the workload of the old judges or the qualifications of the new ones.

Once again, though, the Court’s lack of transparency does it no favours. Given the impact of the Presidency’s decision on the closely-followed Afghanistan situation, it is not enough for it to mechanically recite the various considerations in the Rome Statute concerning the assignment of judges. If only to avoid the kind of conspiracy theories that I personally reject, the Presidency needs to explain precisely why PTC III could not remain intact until it reached a decision on the OTP’s request to open an investigation.

http://opiniojuris.org/2018/04/09/the-iccs-curious-reassignment-of-the-afghanistan-ptc/

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