[Cesare Romano is Professor of Law, Joseph W. Ford Fellow, and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is also Senior Research Fellow of iCourts, University of Copenhagen, and of Pluricourts, University of Oslo.]
Last September, the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, and Timoleón Jiménez, the top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), met in Havana to unveil a plan to put an end to the violence that has plagued their country for more than 50 years. According to the National Center for Historical Memory, between 1958 and 2012 about 220,000 people died as a result of the conflict between leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government security forces. Of those, about 80% were civilians. Moreover, violence, or the fear of it, created 6 million of refugees or internally displaced persons.
A key aspect of the plan is what sort of penalties the perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the long conflict should face. As agreed in Havana, while the rank-and-file of the FARC’s fighters will receive amnesties, leaders charged with “the most serious and representative” crimes will be judged by a Special Tribunal, containing a minority of foreign judges (para 3 of Joint Communique No. 60) (.pdf). Those who confess and collaborate with a Truth Commission will benefit from alternative penalties: between five and eight years of community work “with effective restriction of liberty”, though not in prison conditions. Those who do not collaborate will go to jail for up to 20 years. Similar procedures will apply to the armed forces and those found guilty of financing right-wing paramilitary vigilantes.
Once upon a time, ending civil wars was fairly straightforward, at least from the legal point of view. In return for demobilizing, insurgents would get an amnesty and, if they were lucky, political reforms or even a hand in writing a new constitution. That was what happened in the Central American peace deals of the 1990s, and with Colombia’s M-19 rebels, active between 1970 and 1990.
However, as Ruti Teitel’s article Transitional Justice and Judicial Activism: A Right to Accountability? (.pdf) details, international law has changed since then. Starting from the mid-1990s, the imperative of accountability has moved to the front and center, displacing time-honored transitional justice processes including lustration, exile and the many hard-bargains peoples have made throughout history to turn the page on traumatic events and move on. Nowadays, blanket amnesties that grant impunity for international crimes are, at best, frowned upon, and are even arguably prohibited by international law. Moreover, the range of crimes that cannot be pardoned or amnestied is growing by the day, going beyond jus cogens.
As the Colombian peace process advances, many wonder whether the agreements reached in Havana will pass muster with the International Criminal Court, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the UN Human Rights Committee. Will the punishment meted out by the Special Tribunal satisfy the ICC Prosecutor? Some victims will certainly challenge the legality of the agreement before the Human Rights Committee or the Inter-American Commission. The question might even reach the Inter-American Court, as it has been the case in the past with similar processes in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Peru. Will the imperatives of accountability and human rights undo the negotiations? Teitel’s article skillfully takes us through the maze of considerations and dilemmas that international judicial involvement in transitional justice efforts create.
I believe time has come to start considering the merits of allowing international adjudicative bodies, like the various international human rights courts, and quasi-adjudicative bodies, like the Inter-American Commission and the Human Rights Committee, to pick and choose their cases.
“Discretionary review” is the authority appellate courts have to decide which cases they will consider from among those submitted to them. The opposite of discretionary review is “mandatory review”, in which appellate courts must consider all appeals submitted (as long as they are admissible and the appellate court has jurisdiction, of course).
Discretionary review is widely employed in all modern and developed judicial systems. It has several advantages. It enables an appellate court to focus its limited resources on cases that have large public benefits, and to decide substantive cases with the lowest “opportunity cost”, thus giving the judges the opportunity to avoid being entangled in disputes where the political stakes are too high. It helps the system to develop a coherent body of case law, and reduce potential conflicts with past decisions or other jurisdictions.
Under contemporary international law, international courts and tribunals have mostly mandatory review. When a case is admissible and the adjudicating body in question has jurisdiction, there is little the judges can do to avoid deciding the case. Arguably, the International Court of Justice would have been better off if it had the chance to avoid answering questions that it could not really answer, such as whether the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is against international law, or whether genocide had been committed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
I am sure the Inter-American Court would have preferred not having to pronounce itself on the legality under international law of amnesty laws in several Latin American states. But it had no choice. Once the Inter-American Commission brings a case before it, unless it finds the case not admissible or that it does not have jurisdiction (which has happened, for technical and practical reasons, extremely rarely in the history of the Court), it has to decide. And, given the legal parameters that it has to apply, and the general pro homine bias it necessarily has, the cases lead to scripted conclusions.
The same can be said about the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Albeit in recent years, after the entry into force of Protocol 14 to the European Convention, the Strasbourg court has been given limited discretionary review through the introduction of pilot cases, it is still forced to decide more often than not cases that it should not decide as a matter of opportunity. Admittedly, international criminal tribunals have greater discretion that the other kinds of international adjudicative bodies. However, the discretion is only the Prosecutor’s. Once the Prosecutor has decided to investigate and indict, the judges cannot second guess the Prosecutor and dismiss the case because it might undermine delicate transitional justice efforts.
Faced with inopportune cases, international adjudicative bodies too often end up compromising their legitimacy. They stall, dither, and, eventually, render flawed decisions that try to square the circle and appease everyone but end up appeasing no one. And when they take advantage of the little leeway they have and manage to dodge the case, they are open to criticism because of the lack of transparency about the considerations that have been weighted.
Such a reform would be a momentous change in international procedural law, even if limited to just one adjudicative body. There are many questions to be considered, including whether it could be done by simply modifying the rules of procedure and add a new admissibility criterion, or whether it would require changing the statutes, and, thus, require states’ intervention; how much latitude should international judicial bodies have in deciding when to hear a case; who should be allowed to argue on whether the court should take on the case and how (petition of certiorari only or also hearings?); by what majority should the decision be taken (e.g. the U.S Supreme Court requires four judges out of nine to vote to take on a case); whether the judges should motivate the decision not to take on a case; and so on.
Granted, discretionary review has some disadvantages, too. It reduces access to justice and leaves the parties (mostly victims of human rights abuses) at the mercy of the discretion of the court. However, if we can trust the wisdom of these judges on the merits of the case, why can’t we trust them also on weighing the costs and benefits, writ large, of hearing the case? It is exactly the conundrums of transitional justices detailed in Teitel’s article that should give us pause and let us consider the merits of discretionary review in international adjudicative processes.