[Asad Kiyani (LL.B (Osgoode); LL.M (Cambridge) is a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC).]
While social and traditional media have been flooded with complaints about South Africa’s recent failure to arrest Omar al-Bashir, legal analysis of the situation has been lacking. Many have insisted that the reluctance to arrest al-Bashir is ‘the impunity club’ disregarding legal principle and undermining the rule of law.
Yet, given the widespread insistence that the ICC has jurisdiction over Bashir and he must be arrested by anyone who can do so, there is a remarkable lack of agreement on exactly how the treaty-based ICC has jurisdiction over the sitting head of state of a country that has not ratified said treaty, and when that head of state is protected by customary law immunities (see Gaeta vs Akande, which inspired my article on the same).
For reasons of space, this post does not address the claim that there is already a rule of customary international law that provides an exception to head of state immunity. That position frequently involves the same errors: conflating the immunities of former heads of state (such as Pinochet) with incumbent heads of state, and conflating the elimination of the substantive defence of official capacity with elimination of the procedural bar of immunities. Nor does it deal with peace versus justice arguments, the specificities of South African constitutional law, or perhaps the more promising, genocide-based arguments in favour of arresting al-Bashir highlighted by Göran Sluiter. Instead, this post problematises the assertion that states refusing to arrest al-Bashir have no legal legs to stand on by highlighting four interrelated public international law issues raised by the legal pursuit of al-Bashir.
(1) There has been no reconciliation of the apparent internal contradictions in the Rome Statute: that states are obligated to carry out ICC decisions while also respecting the customary duties they owe to other states, particularly third-party states. Article 27(2) of the Rome Statute waives states’ customary protections of immunities. At the same time, Article 98(1) states that persons clothed in immunity can only be arrested by or surrendered to the Court if “the Court can first obtain the cooperation of that third State for the waiver of the immunity.”
Sudan has clearly not consented to this waiver, and is not cooperating with the Court to waive al-Bashir’s immunity. At the same time, the Court insists that al-Bashir is to be arrested. Thus States Parties to the ICC are faced with competing obligations written into the Statute itself: to arrest al-Bashir while also observing his immunity from arrest. Arguments that there is no contradiction nullify these important provisions of the Rome Statute, and ignore the treaty-law implications of doing so.
(2) Importantly, the Article 98(1) provision is not just a treaty-based rule; it is the assertion of pre-existing principles of public international law that (a) preclude placing treaty obligations on third-party states, and (b) recognize customary law immunities. Thus, even if the Court were to interpret Article 98(1) differently, or the Assembly of State Parties were to delete it from the Rome Statute (a virtual impossibility), the same restrictions would still apply to states such as South Africa because those rules exist in international law independent of the Rome Statute.
These restrictions also apply to the Security Council, even when acting under Chapter VII. While the Security Council has extensive powers in international law, the general scholarship (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here) and jurisprudence makes clear that – contrary to Jens Ohlin’s interpretation of Article 103 of the UN Charter – the Council is restrained by the norms of customary international law. Thus, as far as al-Bashir goes, it makes no difference that the Council referred Darfur to the ICC through a Chapter VII resolution. Insisting that Chapter VII can override customary international law – no matter how awful the person protected by it may be – collapses the agreement/custom distinction first made in Article 103 of the Charter and preserved in Article 98 of the Rome Statute. Additionally, it raises the question of what legal limitations do exist on the Council, and how this interpretation fits with the Tadić court’s view (here at para. 28).
Of course, this does not render Security Council referrals null – it simply restricts the pool of situations that the Council may refer to the Court. (more…)