The focus of Ruti’s article is the developing primary norm of the “right to accountability”, which derives from international jurisprudence associated with disappearances. Ruti describes the core content of this right as one that “implies a set of obligations on the state, largely read into prevailing treaty rights protections involving personal security, such as the right to life, whether under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European or Inter-American conventions on human rights.” Like arguments for a right to democracy, it has its aspirational dimensions. Yet, Ruti taps into some very interesting undercurrents that implicate state responsibility, and it is this angle that I wish to comment on today.
As conceptualized in her article, the right to accountability is a primary rule of international law that is based in treaty law, and particularly the right to life. It is also connected to other sources such as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, and Article 7 of the Statute of the ICC. There is, of course, no “right to accountability” as such. The primary norm is based on patterns of jurisprudence developed through judicial tools which courts have adopted to overcome obstacles associated with cases involving disappearances, whether jurisdictional (such as time bars), or stemming from a state’s refusal to recognize the disappearance.
A central claim of the article is that this primary norm has developed as a remedy to the limitations of secondary rules, such as rules on attribution under the Articles on State Responsibility. In this, as Ruti notes, there are parallels with terrorism and cases of rendition, that have led to the elaboration of new duties, such as a duty to prevent, and creative thinking about omissions and due diligence standards. I have discussed these trends in a recent article in the Melbourne Journal of International Law available here.
Nonetheless, given the connection between state action and disappearances, the secondary rules of state responsibility remain important. Ruti describes some of these connections: in Heliodoro Portugal, for example, she writes that “the court drew on the principle of the continuing breach of state responsibility rather than fully conceiving the failure to provide accountability as an autonomous internationally wrongful act— which, of course, obviously continued up to the time the petition was brought, and persisted until and unless there was state explanation.” Ruti also discusses the attribution of acts to a state, and notes the IACHR’s profound contributions to its development and application, beginning with the Velasquez Rodriguez case. Importantly, she highlights that courts are not adhering to the traditional two-step process of identifying attribution and wrongfulness, instead determining there is “a right to accountability” regardless of whether it can be established that the original human rights abuses were themselves internationally wrongful. Finally, in Goiburu, she discusses connections between forced disappearance and violations erga omnes, which trigger the responsibility of other states and the international community as a whole.
One interesting dimension of this article is that it points towards a unified theory of responsibility that combines international criminal law, human rights law, and global / criminal justice. Another is that it highlights the problem of slippage in international law: states are increasingly outsourcing key activities, including activities that have been linked with disappearances, raising the question of whether one high level of control is the appropriate default standard in international law. Finally, this study supports the proposition that in certain areas of law- which may now include disappearances – the relevance of secondary rules is waning. As such, the piece provides interesting insights into the status of secondary rules of state responsibility in a variety of regional courts. There are a series of open questions that follow: Might this jurisprudence constitute a lex specialis for attribution doctrines in the field of human rights? More generally, what would a unified theory of responsibility that encompasses states, international organizations, individuals, and non-state actors look like? What would its core components be? Finally, are attribution doctrines under the ASR fit for the purpose today, given the changing nature of the modern state, including prevalent out-sourcing and multilevel governance situations? I would be very interested in Ruti’s take on how to remedy the gaps in the ASR given the role of non-state actors in the cases she examines.