Archive of posts for category
Human Rights

Would Paddington Prefer Christmas Island?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m sure most of us will go see the live-action movie version of PADDINGTON, which recently hit the big screen. And we will do so, of course, because we are interested in what Paddington’s residence status says about the UK’s harsh immigration laws. Fortunately, Colin Yeo has prepared a nice primer for us at the Free Movement blog, run by the excellent Garden Court Chambers. Here’s a snippet:

Paddington stows away and deliberately avoids the immigration authorities on arrival. He is in formal legal terms an illegal entrant and as such commits a criminal offence under section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971. It is an offence punishable by up to six months in prison. If or when detected by the authorities it is more likely he would simply be removed back to Peru than that he would be prosecuted, though. To avoid that fate he would need to make out a legal basis to stay.

Incidentally, for offering a home to Paddington — or harbouring him, as the Home Office would have it — Mr and Mrs Brown could potentially face prosecution under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971, entitled “Assisting unlawful immigration to member State”.

Yeo goes on to explain why Paddington will have a difficult time justifying his illegal entry into the UK — and will probably end up in a poorly-run private detention centre. (Do I hear sequel? Perhaps it could be entitled PADDINGTON MAKES A NEW FRIEND.)

It could be worse, though. Paddington could’ve tried to sneak into Australia. If he had, he’d likely be sent to the ironically-named Christmas Island, Oz’s very own prison camp.

Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?

by Kevin Jon Heller

While researching an essay on the use of analogy in IHL, I had the misfortune of reading Al Warafi v. Obama, a recent habeas case involving an alleged member of the Taliban. Al Warafi argued that even if he was a member of the Taliban — which he denied — he was entitled to be treated in detention as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which provides that “[m]edical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.” That protected status is very important, because other provisions in GC I — as well as in the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which extends the rules of GC I — require medics to be given a number of protections and privileges that other detainees do not enjoy.

The District Court rejected Al Warafi’s argument, concluding (p. 17) that he did not qualify as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 because the Taliban had not provided him with “the proof required by the Convention — that is, official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status under Article 24. Absent such identification, petitioner simply cannot prove that he qualifies as Article 24 personnel.” In reaching the conclusion, the District Court specifically relied on paragraph 734 of the Commentary to AP I:

A soldier with medical duties is actually an able-bodied person who might well engage in combat; a medical vehicle could be used to transport ammunition rather than the wounded or medical supplies. Thus it is essential for medical personnel, units, materials and transports to be identified in order to ensure the protection to which they are entitled, which is identical to that accorded the wounded, sick and shipwrecked.

The DC Circuit then rejected Al Warafi’s appeal of the District Court’s decision on the same grounds.

I was puzzled by paragraph 734 when I came across it in the District Court’s decision. It seemed obvious that a medic who was not wearing the identification required by GC I and AP I could be targeted without violating the principle of distinction. It seemed equally obvious that a captured medic without proper identification might have a difficult time convincing his captors of his status. But I found it difficult to believe GC I and AP 1 would actually deprive a medic of his protected status simply because he did not have the proper identification. Doing so would serve no humanitarian purpose whatsoever, assuming the individual could establish his status by other means.

But paragraph 734 said what it said. So surely the District Court’s conclusion was correct. Right?

Wrong. Had the District Court bothered to read the next twelve paragraphs in the Commentary to AP I, it would have realised that, in fact, proper identification is not necessary for a medic to be entitled to protected status. Here is paragraph 746 of the Commentary to AP I:

The basic principle is stated in this first paragraph. The right to respect and protection of medical personnel and medical objects would be meaningless if they could not be clearly recognized. The Parties to the conflict therefore have a great interest in seeing that such personnel and objects can be identified by the enemy. Thus the rule laid down here is in the interests of those who are responsible for observing it. In fact, it would be the medical personnel and medical objects of the Party concerned which would suffer from poor means of identification and which could become the target of an enemy that had not identified them. Yet it must be emphasized that the means of identification do not constitute the right to protection, and from the moment that medical personnel or medical objects have been identified, shortcomings in the means of identification cannot be used as a pretext for failing to respect them.

In other words: the District Court and the DC Circuit should not have dismissed Al Warafi’s habeas petition on the ground the Taliban had not issued him with “official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status.” Neither GC I nor AP I require such identification.

Another day, another misunderstanding of IHL by US courts. Sad, but predictable.

ICC/Palestine Event at Doughty Street Chambers

by Kevin Jon Heller

London-area readers interested in the ICC and Palestine might want to attend the following event, which is co-sponsored by Chatham House and Doughty Street Chambers (where I’m an academic member). It should be good, despite my participation:

Milestones in International Criminal Justice: The ICC and Palestine

Date: Tuesday 02 December 2014

Time: 18.00 – 19.30

Location: 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

Venue: Doughty Street Chambers

Speakers: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor Yaël Ronen, Stephanie Barbour, Head of Amnesty International Centre for International Justice

CPD: 1.5

Fee: Free

Availability: Book a seat

In 2009 Palestine lodged a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC but only two years later the ICC Prosecutor decided to close its preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine because of uncertainties surrounding Palestine’s statehood.

The meeting will explore the implications of the UN General Assembly’s decision to accord to Palestine the status of non-member observer state in 2012, issues concerning Palestine’s prospective accession to the Rome Statute, and the possibility for Palestine to lodge a retroactive declaration giving the Court jurisdiction over Israeli military operations in Gaza such as ‘Cast Lead’ and ‘Protective Edge’.

Please note this event will be followed by a drinks reception.

This event is held in association with Doughty Street Chambers and is accredited with 1.5 CPD points.

Hope to see (some of) you there!

The Ninth Circuit’s Muddled Comity Analysis in Mujica

by Roger Alford

Last week the Ninth Circuit issued a controversial opinion in Mujica v. Airscan, Inc., that sharply limits the scope of human rights litigation. The claims in Mujica arose in Colombia and allegedly implicate corporate collusion with the Colombian military. Following Kiobel the common consensus was that Alien Tort Statute litigation would be severely curtailed based on the presumption against extraterritoriality. Not surprisingly, the Ninth Circuit rejected the Plaintiffs’ claims, finding that where the only connection to the United States was the Defendants’ nationality, the claims do not “touch and concern” the territory of the United States with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.

What is extremely surprising is that the court dismissed the state law claims. Because the court was not exercising supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, it could not simply dismiss them without prejudice to be filed in state court. As with almost every other common law tort claim brought in federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction, I fully expected the Ninth Circuit in Mujica to apply California choice of law principles to resolve the claim. (For a detailed analysis of choice of law in the human rights context, see my article here).

As set forth by the California Supreme Court in Kearney, California’s comparative impairment analysis considers whether there is a true conflict between the affected states and applies “the law of the state whose interest would be the more impaired if its law were not applied.” California courts generally favor forum law when (1) the forum has an interest in the dispute and the laws of other affected jurisdictions are not different or (2) when the laws are different and the interests of the forum would be more impaired than the interests of the other jurisdiction. Otherwise they apply foreign law. Applying California choice of law, the Ninth Circuit exercising diversity jurisdiction ordinarily would retain jurisdiction of the state law claims and resolve them under Colombian law (as the government with the greatest interests at stake). The whole purpose of Brainerd Currie’s government interest approach (adopted by the California courts) is to exercise jurisdiction in a manner consistent with the legitimate government interests of the relevant stakeholders.

That is not what the court in Mujica did. Instead it relied on a novel prudential comity analysis to dismiss the claims. It first distinguished between prescriptive and adjudicatory comity, and concluded that Hartford Fire’s “true conflict” approach was inapplicable. Fair enough. But then it applied the comity factors enunciated in Restatement Section 403, which also applies to prescriptive comity. So the “true conflict” approach in Hartford Fire does not apply because that is relevant only for prescriptive jurisdiction, but the limitations on prescriptive jurisdiction in Section 403 do apply in balancing factors under adjudicatory comity. Very strange.

With due credit to my conversations with Trey Childress and Bill Dodge yesterday, if the court was going to invoke adjudicatory comity, it should have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Colorado River and appellate court decisions such as Royal and Sun Alliance, Ungaro-Benages, and AAR International. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Neuchatel Swiss General specifically addressed adjudicatory comity and held that courts should not dismiss on the basis of adjudicatory comity except in “exceptional circumstances.” Those cases strongly suggest that adjudicatory comity applies only in exceptional circumstances and only when there is a pending foreign proceeding. The Ninth Circuit in Mujica completely ignored binding Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedents.

So what the court should have done in a case of diversity jurisdiction with significant foreign contacts is apply California’s choice of law principles to resolve the common law claims. That almost certainly would have resulted in the application of Colombian law, especially Title XXXIV of the Colombian Civil Code. (The Court could not dismiss the case based on forum non conveniens because the district court already determined that there was not an adequate alternative forum, and that question was not on appeal.) With no other avenues for dismissal, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the claims on the basis of a muddled application of adjudicatory comity, leaving the plaintiffs with no obvious means of redress anywhere.

I have written at length about the rise of transnational tort litigation and the application of choice-of-law principles as the logical response to Kiobel. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mujica seems to suggest that that approach is perfectly fine for the typical wrongful death claim involving foreign contacts or parties. But if it is a human rights claim dressed up in the guise of a wrongful death claim, then at least two members of the Ninth Circuit will bend over backwards to dismiss it.

I would be quite surprised if this case is not reconsidered by the Ninth Circuit en banc.

Guest Post: The Suspension of the Colombian Peace Talks and the Illegality of the Deprivation of Liberty of Members of State Armed Forces in Non-International Armed Conflicts

by Nicolás Carrillo-Santarelli

[Nicolás Carrillo-Santarelli is a Colombian lawyer, PhD on international law and international relations. He works as a researcher and lecturer of Public International Law at the Autónoma de Madrid University.] 

Introduction

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday, November 17,2014, that the negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrilla seeking to reach a peace agreement were suspended because of information that the FARC kidnapped a Colombian general, an officer, and a lawyer (see here and here [in Spanish]).

While the reaction of the non-state armed group is yet to be seen, it is interesting to take into account its likely position regarding the type of conduct it is accused of having perpetrated. On Sunday November 9, 2014, the FARC kidnapped two Colombian soldiers, called César Rivera and Jonathan Andrés Díaz, but claimed that, in its opinion, far from breaching international humanitarian law, the group acted in accordance thereof. The FARC considers the soldiers to be captured as ‘prisoners of war’ and claims to have treated them in accordance with humanitarian principles by respecting their rights to life and integrity (Spanish) (it must be noted that, in the past, those deprived of their liberty by the FARC have notoriously been treated in an inhuman fashion and to the detriment of the enjoyment of their human rights [see here and here]).

Illegality of all deprivations of liberty attributable to non-state armed groups during non-international armed conflicts

It is important to examine if the claim of the FARC can be consistent with international law: namely, whether a non-state armed group can deprive individuals of their liberty during non-international armed conflicts under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). If the victims are civilians, the answer is clearly a negative one. Furthermore, in a scenario as the Colombian one, in which many civilians have suffered the deprivation of their liberty and their being placed in harsh conditions and treated cruelly or even killed at the hands of the guerillas, which have also extorted money as a condition to release some of them, it can be said that those deprivations of liberty have been carried out “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”, and so that those who perpetrate them commit a crime against humanity, according to article 7.e of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. From the point of view of human rights law, it can also be argued that the conduct in question amounts to a violation of those rights (and if it is accepted that non-state entities have human rights obligations, the armed groups would breach them as well).

When it comes to the legal analysis of the deprivation of liberty of members of the Colombian armed forces by the FARC, it is important to begin by noting that the regulation of international and non-international armed conflicts is not always identical or even similar. In fact, applying the rules of the former to the latter may sometimes be problematic, being this one of those events. In this regard, while treaty and customary norms permit the detention of prisoners of war during international armed conflicts, as Rule 99 of the Customary IHL Database of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicates, there is no indication that such a rule is applicable in non-international armed conflicts. In fact, the aforementioned rule, dealing with deprivation of liberty, when discussing non-international armed conflicts, focuses on the human rights standards governing the deprivation of liberty attributed to States, stressing that it must be lawful and non-arbitrary; and so implicitly indicates that there is no legal authorization for non-state armed groups to deprive anyone of his or her liberty or to detain them. In doctrine, this is confirmed by the analysis of conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian one, regarding which it has been said that: (more…)

Thoughts on the Baffling Comoros Declination

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I read – and re-read – the OTP’s decision regarding the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one thought kept going through my mind: what was the OTP thinking? Why would it produce a 61-page document explaining why, despite finding reason to believe the IDF had committed war crimes during the attack, it was not going to open an investigation? After all, the OTP took barely 10 pages to explain why it was not going to open an investigation into British war crimes in Iraq. And it routinely refuses to open investigations with no explanation at all.

There are, I think, two possible explanations for the length of the decision. The first is that the OTP learned its lesson with its 2006 Iraq decision, which no one found convincing and was widely interpreted as Luis Moreno-Ocampo succumbing to Western pressure. This time, the OTP was going to do better, providing a much more detailed discussion of its decision not to investigate.

The second possible explanation is that the OTP felt the need to say more than usual because this was the first time a state had referred crimes committed by another state to the OTP. Nothing in the Rome Statute requires the OTP to treat state referrals differently than “referrals” by individuals or organisations (the scare quotes are necessary because individuals and organisations don’t refer situations; they ask the OTP to use its proprio motu power to open an investigation into a situation), but the OTP is, of course, ultimately dependent upon states to cooperate with it. Hence greater solicitude toward state referrals is warranted.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I imagine both are at least partially correct. But I still can’t help but think that the OTP made a serious mistake, one that will come back to haunt it in the future, should it ever need to formally address the Israel/Palestine conflict again — which seems likely.

To be clear, I don’t think refusing to investigate the attack on the Mavi Marmara was a mistake. I agree with the OTP that the potential crimes committed during the attack, however troubling, are not grave enough to warrant a formal investigation. My problem is with the OTP’s explanation of why those crimes are not adequately grave – that attacks on peacekeepers (in Darfur) are more serious than an attack on civilians engaged trying to break a blockade that has been widely condemned as illegal because of its devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Gaza. I fully agree with Michael Kearney’s recent guest-post on the Comoros decision, in which he questions the OTP’s characterisation of the flotilla as not really being humanitarian. I’d simply add that I find problematic its insistence that a genuinely humanitarian mission would have worked with Israel to distribute goods in Gaza instead of trying to break the blockade. Doing so would have meant, of course, giving final say over the goods to a state whose officials have admitted they want to keep Palestinians at near-subsistence levels. Complying with the blockade would simply have made the flotilla complicit in Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

The OTP’s gravity analysis is also analytically confused…

This War of Mine — A New (and Better) Type of Videogame

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly nine years ago, I blogged about the ICRC’s efforts to prevent the use — or, more accurately, the misuse — of the Red Cross symbol in videogames. I imagine it will have less of a problem with the new game This War of Mine, which challenges the player to survive as long as possible as a civilian in a war-torn fictional city. Here is the powerful trailer for the game, which mixes survivor testimony with haunting in-game graphics:

And here is a snippet of a glowing (if that’s the right adjective) review of the game by Matt Peckham in Wired:

I’ve seen some refer to This War of Mine as an antiwar video game. That’s too reductive—like calling pictures of civilian casualties in conflict zones “pacifist propaganda.”

The scenarios This War of Mine engages are less antiwar than they are actual war stories, and that, I think, is the point: This is what unflinching war looks like from the standpoint of those powerless to stop it, the ones caught in the teeth of the machine without catchy operational monikers to rally behind or celebrated by politicians to usher them home as heroes. The ones whose war this isn’t.

It’s what Cormac McCarthy was getting at in The Road: We’re a faint signal cutting through the static of existence, and war, with its reduction of civilian lives to collateral damage, scrambles even that.

The version of war we’re often sold involves abstract military numbers, splashy interactive news maps and easy slogans on bumper stickers. In real war, whatever the reasons and however noble the rhetoric, it comes down to individuals like the ones in This War of Mine: People like you or me trapped in appalling scenarios, their social constructs crumbling, needing basic shelter, food, a bed to sleep in, pills or antibiotics, and perhaps most of all, a reason in all the madness not to check out for good.

Videogames are now a $15 billion industry. Here’s hoping at least some of that money goes to the innovative developers of This War of Mine for showing us the educative and transformative potential that well-designed videogames possess.

November 19: UNWCC Event at SOAS

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call our London-area readers attention to a very interesting event I’ll be chairing on November 19. The event is entitled “Reinforcing International Criminal Justice: Building on the Work of the 1943-48 UN War Crimes Commission”; here is the description:

As part of Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy’s Research Programme on UN War Crimes Commission which was published in the Criminal Law Forum, CISD will be holding a Panel Discussion on recently disclosed archives from the United Nations War Crimes Commission (1943-48), uncovering a critical gap in the historical narrative of World War II and the development of international criminal law, upon which the international community can draw in view of strengthening the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court and sharpening international responses to contemporary war crimes and crimes against humanity.

And here are the participants:

Overview: Shanti Sattler (by skype)

Shanti Sattler is the assistant director of the War Crimes Project at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Complementary Justice: Dr Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA) and leads the foremost international organisation of bar associations, law firms and individual lawyers in the world.

Torture: Dr Lutz Oette

Dr Lutz Oette is Counsel at REDRESS and a lecturer in law at the School of Law, SOAS, University of London.

Prosecution of Sexual Crimes and of Low Level Officials: Dr Dan Plesch

Dr Dan Plesch is the Director of the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Additional information about the event, which is open to the public and does not require registration, is available here. Readers with a particular interest in the UNWCC’s underappreciated work should also check out CISD’s amazing website here.

What Happens if Comoros Appeals? (Answer: Not Much.)

by Kevin Jon Heller

According to Marlise Simons at the New York Times, Comoros intends to appeal the OTP’s decision not to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. That’s its right — but it’s a right without a remedy, because the judges cannot order the OTP to investigate the attack. The relevant provision in the Rome Statute is Art. 53:

1.         The Prosecutor shall, having evaluated the information made available to him or her, initiate an investigation unless he or she determines that there is no reasonable basis to proceed under this Statute. In deciding whether to initiate an investigation, the Prosecutor shall consider whether:

(a)     The information available to the Prosecutor provides a reasonable basis to believe that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been or is being committed;

(b)     The case is or would be admissible under article 17; and

(c)     Taking into account the gravity of the crime and the interests of victims, there are nonetheless substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.

If the Prosecutor determines that there is no reasonable basis to proceed and his or her determination is based solely on subparagraph (c) above, he or she shall inform the Pre-Trial Chamber.

3.         (a)     At the request of the State making a referral under article 14 or the Security Council under article 13, paragraph (b), the Pre-Trial Chamber may review a decision of the Prosecutor under paragraph 1 or 2 not to proceed and may request the Prosecutor to reconsider that decision.

(b)     In addition, the Pre-Trial Chamber may, on its own initiative, review a decision of the Prosecutor not to proceed if it is based solely on paragraph 1 (c) or 2 (c). In such a case, the decision of the Prosecutor shall be effective only if confirmed by the Pre-Trial Chamber.

The problem for Comoros is that the OTP refused to open a formal investigation because it concluded that the crimes in question are not grave enough to warrant investigation — Art. 53(1)(b). As a result, although Comoros has the right under Art. 53(3)(a) to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to review the OTP’s decision, the PTC does not have the authority to order the OTP to investigate. All it can do is “request the Prosecutor to reconsider that decision” — to which she would no doubt reply, “thanks, but no.”

The situation would have been very different if the OTP had deemed the crimes adequately grave but refused to investigate because of the “interests of justice” — Art. 53(1)(c). In that case, the PTC would have had the right under Art. 53(3)(b) to review that decision sua sponte and the authority to refuse to confirm the OTP’s decision — which would presumably mean that the PTC could have ordered the OTP to formally investigate. It was thus a very smart move by the OTP to rely on gravity instead of the interests of justice.

No one quite knows what would happen if the PTC ever ordered the OTP to conduct a formal investigation against its will. Such a situation, of course, seems practically untenable. We’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.

The OTP Concludes Israel Is Still Occupying Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Thomas Escritt has reported for Reuters, the OTP has declined to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. I will have much more to say about the decision tomorrow; I agree with the OTP’s conclusion but have serious problems with much of its reasoning. But I thought I’d tease tomorrow’s post by noting that, despite the declination, Israel is going to be very angry at the OTP — because the OTP specifically concludes (as part of its decision to classify the conflict as international) that Israel is still occupying Gaza. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

26. Israel maintains that following the 2005 disengagement, it is no longer an occupying power in Gaza as it does not exercise effective control over the area.

27. However, the prevalent view within the international community is that Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. In general, this view is based on the scope and degree of control that Israel has retained over the territory of Gaza following the 2005 disengagement – including, inter alia, Israel’s exercise of control over border crossings, the territorial sea adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and the airspace of Gaza; its periodic military incursions within Gaza; its enforcement of no-go areas within Gaza near the border where Israeli settlements used to be; and its regulation of the local monetary market based on the Israeli currency and control of taxes and customs duties. The retention of such competences by Israel over the territory of Gaza even after the 2005 disengagement overall supports the conclusion that the authority retained by Israel amounts to effective control.

28. Although it no longer maintains a military presence in Gaza, Israel has not only shown the ability to conduct incursions into Gaza at will, but also expressly reserved the right to do so as required by military necessity. This consideration is potentially significant considering that there is support in international case law for the conclusion that it is not a prerequisite that a State maintain continuous presence in a territory in order to qualify as an occupying power. In particular, the ICTY has held that the law of occupation would also apply to areas where a state possesses “the capacity to send troops within a reasonable time to make the authority of the occupying power felt.” In this respect, it is also noted that the geographic proximity of the Gaza Strip to Israel potentially facilitates the ability of Israel to exercise effective control over the territory, despite the lack of a continuous military presence.

29. Overall, there is a reasonable basis upon which to conclude that Israel continues to be an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. The Office has therefore proceeded on the basis that the situation in Gaza can be considered within the framework of an international armed conflict in view of the continuing military occupation by Israel.

I’m not certain I agree with this analysis, though the OTP’s conclusion is far from unreasonable. Regardless, let the fireworks begin…

Huge Win in the Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

Earlier this year, Chris Gevers blogged about the Zimbabwe Torture Docket case, in which the Constitutional Court of South Africa was asked to determine whether the South African Police Service (SAPS) is required to investigate allegations that high-ranking government and security officials in Zimbabwe committed acts of torture. Those acts took place solely in Zimbabwe and involved only Zimbabweans, so the key issues in the case were (1) whether South Africa’s adoption of universal jurisdiction over torture obligated SAPS to investigate the torture, and (2) if so, what conditions, if any, qualified that obligation.

As Chris noted in his post, I and three other international criminal law scholars (Gerhard Kemp, John Dugard, and Hannah Woolaver, with Hannah doing most of the heavy lifting) filed an amicus brief with the Court addressing the question of whether anything in international law prohibits a state from opening a universal-jurisdiction investigation in absentia — without the presence of the suspect. That was a critical sub-issue in the case, because although the Zimbabwean suspects travel regularly to South Africa, they would not necessarily be present at the beginning of a SAPS investigation.

The Court released its decision today — and it’s a complete win for the amici and (far more importantly) for the excellent Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which brought the case. First, with regard to the in absentia issue, the Court agreed with amici that international law did not prohibit universal-jurisdiction investigations in absentia (p. 27). I won’t rehash the Court’s analysis, but I do want to quote the Court’s excellent explanation of why states should be allowed to conduct such investigations (p. 28):

[48] This approach is to be followed for several valid reasons. Requiring presence for an investigation would render nugatory the object of combating crimes against humanity. If a suspect were to enter and remain briefly in the territory of a state party, without a certain level of prior investigation, it would not be practicable to initiate  charges and prosecution. An anticipatory investigation does not violate fair trial rights of the suspect or accused person. A determination of presence or anticipated presence requires an investigation in the first instance. Ascertaining a current or anticipated location of a suspect could not occur otherwise. Furthermore, any possible next step that could arise as a result of an investigation, such as a prosecution or an extradition request, requires an assessment of information which can only be attained through an investigation. By way of example, it is only once a docket has been completed and handed to a prosecutor that there can be an assessment as to whether or not to prosecute.

The Court then proceeded to hold that SAPS not only had the right to open a universal-jurisdiction investigation into torture in Zimbabwe, it had an obligation to do so — a remarkable position for the Court to take…

The ICC, Continuing Crimes, and Lago Agrio

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawyers for the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have filed a communication with the ICC asking the OTP to investigate Chevron officials for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with the company’s “rainforest Chernobyl” in Ecuador. Ecuador ratified the Rome Statute in 2002.

Regular readers know my sympathies — both ethical and legal — lie squarely with the Lago Agrio plaintiffs. The only thing more unconscionable than Chevron’s destruction of the rainforest in Ecuador is its willingness to lie and manufacture evidence in order to avoid paying for its destruction. In a world with better criminal laws, I have no doubt that the CEO of Chevron and everyone else involved in the company’s misdeeds would be serving long prison sentences somewhere.

But we do not live in a world with better laws, and unfortunately the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ communication faces a steep uphill battle. To begin with, the communication is not quite sure what Chevron has done that qualifies as a crime against humanity. It oscillates — very confusingly — between failing to pay the damages award in Ecuador (p. 19), attempting to cover up the extent of the pollution in Ecuador (p. 23), engaging in unsavoury litigation practices (p. 25), maintaining the polluted conditions (p. 36), and causing the pollution in the first place (p. 36). Those are, of course, very different arguments.

One thing is clear: the ICC could not prosecute Chevron’s deliberate dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste-water into the Lago Agrio region, because that dumping occurred long before 1 July 2002, when the Rome Statue entered into force. That’s too bad, because I think a strong case can be made that intentional pollution of an area occupied by civilians could, in the right circumstances, qualify as a number of crimes against humanity — from forcible transfer to persecution to “other inhumane acts.” As the plaintiffs rightly note (p. 27), an “attack on a civilian population” does not have to involve physical violence.

That said, the communication seems to suggest that the plaintiffs view the contamination as some kind of continuing crime. It claims (p. 40), for example, that the potential crimes against humanity involved in the dumping “continue even today.” The idea seems to be that those crimes will continue until Chevron remediates the pollution — similar to the idea, promoted by various scholars, that Israel’s illegal transfer of its civilians into the West Bank will qualify as a crime against humanity until such time as the settlements are disbanded or that enforced disappearances continue until the responsible government identifies the fate of the victims. It is an open question whether the ICC will even recognise continuing crimes, as the ICTR has. I’m skeptical, given the drafters of the Rome Statute’s quite deliberate decision not to give the ICC retroactive jurisdiction. Few Latin American governments would have ratified the Rome Statute if they knew that their actions during the Dirty War would be open to judicial scrutiny.

But let’s assume the ICC will recognise continuing crimes. Would that mean the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have a case? It’s an interesting question. As noted above, it’s possible that Chevron’s deliberate pollution of the Lago Agrio region qualified as the crime against humanity of forcible transfer; “forcible” doesn’t require physical force and the defendant(s) do not have to intend to drive people fro where they are lawfully entitled to be. (They simply have to be virtually certain that will be the result.) So there is at least an argument that Chevron is responsible for forcible transfer until it cleans up the region to the point where displaced residents can return to their homes. But I can’t see the ICC accepting that argument, if only because of the potential implications — there are probably dozens of situations in member-states in which pollution predictably drove people from their homes and continues to prevent their return. That’s the problem with “continuing crimes”: they simply throw open the courthouse door in a manner the drafters of the Rome Statute were unlikely to have intended.

But that is not the only problem with the communication. Even if the ICC recognised continuing crimes, it is not clear how the current crop of Chevron officials could be held responsible for the (continuing) forcible transfer of people from Lago Agrio. Aiding and abetting would seem to be the most likely mode of participation, given that those officials presumably had nothing to do with the dumping of the waste (which was done by Texaco, which Chevron later acquired). Not paying the judgment and litigation misconduct, though reprehensible, would hardly qualify as aiding and abetting the forcible transfer. (I suppose one could argue paying the plaintiffs would make it easier for them to return home, but I can’t see the ICC convicting someone on such an attenuated basis.) The only real argument would be that Chevron’s current officials are aiding and abetting the continuing forcible transfer by failing to remediate the environmental damage in Lago Agrio. That is not a nonsensical idea, but it seems unlikely to succeed. Art. 25(3)(c) aiding and abetting would almost certainly be off the table, because it would require the Chevron officials to subjectively intend for people in Lago Agrio not to be able to return to their homes. No matter what you think of Chevron — and I obviously think precious little — that would be nearly impossible to prove. More likely is Art. 25(3)(d)’s version of aiding and abetting, contributing to a group crime, which would “only” require the OTP to prove that Chevron officials contributed to the forcible transfer by impeding remediation despite knowing that Chevron intended for the displacement to continue. Again, no matter what you think of Chevron’s remediation efforts (much of which was fraudulent), that’s a stretch. Not impossible, to be sure. But a stretch.

In short, unless the ICC is willing to recognise continuing crimes and adopt a very capacious understanding of aiding and abetting, it is difficult to see the OTP opening an investigation into the Lago Agrio situation. All of the other crimes against humanity identified by the Lago Agrio plaintiffs — murder, persecution, other inhumane acts — clearly took place, if they took place at all, long before 1 July 2002. And the current Chevron officials can hardly be held accountable for them.