[Andrea Pin is senior lecturer at the University of Padua, where he teaches constitutional law, comparative public law, and Islamic law. He is also a fall 2014 Kellogg visiting fellow at Notre Dame.]
A few weeks ago, the Italian Constitutional Court’s decision no. 238 of 2014 struck blows to the theory and practice of sovereign immunity, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), German-Italian relationships, and even the Italian Government. On October 3, 2012, the ICJ decided that the customary sovereign immunity from jurisdiction protects Germany from suits brought before Italian domestic courts seeking compensation for Nazi crimes perpetrated in Italy during World War II.
Later on, new suits were filed against Germany in Italian domestic courts. This time, Italian judges requested a preliminary ruling from the Italian Constitutional Court to ascertain if the sovereign immunity protection, as crafted by the ICJ, was against the Italian Constitution. If the Court found that such immunity violated the Constitution, the judges would process the suits.
The Constitutional text proclaims that “The Italian legal system conforms to the generally recognised rules of international law” (Art. no. 10). International customary law falls in this category and therefore prevails over incompatible domestic legal provisions. But there has always been a caveat: the generally recognized rules of international law cannot be enforced in Italy if they conflict with the supreme principles of the Constitution. This is the doctrine of counter-limits, which the Constitutional Court shaped with special regards to the European Union integration: according to this doctrine, core constitutional values would set exceptional boundaries to the domestic enforcement of EU laws, which can ordinarily subordinate constitutional provisions.
The hypothetical non-enforcement of international law for violating a supreme constitutional value had never become reality—until now. The 2014 decision of the Constitutional Court found that Art. no. 24 of the Constitution (“All persons are entitled to take judicial action to protect their individual rights and legitimate interests”) encapsulates a fundamental principle of the Constitution. Therefore, the Court blocked the application of sovereign immunity from jurisdiction, and allowed the referring Italian judges to proceed with the relevant trials.
This unprecedented decision surely is in conflict with the ICJ Statute. In fact, the Italian Court consequently struck down the pieces of Italian legislation that commanded the enforcement of the ICJ’s judgments in cases of gross human rights violations as well. But it will also create some turbulence in the relationships between Italy and Germany.
The Constitutional Court’s decision, finally, is in conflict with the Italian Government’s attitude. After the ICJ’s judgment, the Government signed and had the Parliament execute the New York Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property (2004). This Convention confirmed the ICJ’s approach to sovereign immunity: practically speaking, after losing at the ICJ, the Italian State happily legitimized Germany’s jurisdictional immunity. The Constitutional Court also needed to quash these pieces of Italian legislation.