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International Criminal Law

A Brief Rejoinder to Haque on the ICRC’s Interpretation of NIAC

by Kevin Jon Heller

My thanks to Adil Haque for his response to my post. Adil and I rarely disagree in any profound way about IHL, so it’s enjoyable to spar with him about whether a first-strike by government forces against an organized armed group automatically creates a NIAC — thus triggering IHL — or whether a certain intensity of hostilities between the two is required.

I will have more to say about Adil’s response soon, but I wanted to quickly address one particular implication in his post: namely, that the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II supports his claim that a single military operation by government forces or by an organized armed group is sufficient to trigger a NIAC because it is more than a “sporadic act of violence.” Here is what he writes:

In my view, a military operation by State armed forces that meets with no armed response and may never be repeated is not a “sporadic act of violence” within the meaning of APII 1(2). On this point, I follow the ICRC Commentrary to APII, which negatively defines “isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups.” APII 1(2) describes disturbances and tensions created by disorganized or unarmed groups, criminal gangs, and individuals. APII 1(2) does not describe “acts of violence against the adversary in offence or defence” (that is, attacks as defined by API).

With the exception of ambiguous quotes like the one above, there is little support in the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II or in any of the ICRC’s commentaries for Adil’s position. The ICRC clearly believes that any kind of NIAC — AP II or Common Article 3 — requires adequately intense hostilities.

Let’s start with the AP II Commentary Adil cites. The Commentary opens its discussion of AP II by emphasizing (p. 1343) that CA3 and AP II have the same structure — and that neither applies in the absence of sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

The content and scope of all of these articles will be analysed in the respective comments on them. Before doing this it seems useful to have a closer look at the basic pattern of Part I, which reveals the similarity of the ideas which inspired Protocol II and common Article 3. To understand the scope of the Protocol one should indeed always bear in mind the fact that this instrument supplements and develops common Article 3; it is an extension of it, and is based on the same structure.l Their common characteristics find expression, explicitly or implicitly, in Part I. These can be summarized as follows…

The threshold where Protocol II becomes applicable is determined by the criteria expressed in Article 1 (Material field of application), which means that it is intended to apply only to conflicts of a certain degree of intensity.

Later, the Commentary discusses (p. 1355) what AP II means by “internal disturbances,” taking the position that such disturbances include situations in which military operations by government forces — even against an organized armed group — do not lead to sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

[T]he ICRC gave the following description of internal disturbances during the first session of the Conference of Government Experts in 1971:

“This involves situations in which there is no non-international armed conflict as such, but there exists a confrontation within the country, which is characterized by a certain seriousness or duration and which involves acts of violence. These latter can assume various forms, all the way from the spontaneous generation of acts of revolt to the struggle between more or less organized groups and the authorities in power. In these situations, which do not necessarily degenerate into open struggle, the authorities in power call upon extensive police forces, or even armed forces, to restore internal order. The high number of victims has made necessary the application of a minimum of humanitarian rules.”

[snip]

In short, as stated above, there are internal disturbances, without being an armed conflict, when the State uses armed force to maintain order; there are internal tensions, without being internal disturbances, when force is used as a preventive measure to maintain respect for law and order.

Finally the Commentaries specifically point out (p. 1356) that such “internal disturbances” do not create a NIAC and do not trigger IHL:

Internal disturbances and tensions are not at present within the field of application of international humanitarian law; the ICRC has carried out activities in this field on an ad hoc basis. However, this does not mean that there is no international legal protection applicable to such situations, as they are covered by universal and regional human rights instruments. 31 It is not within the scope of this commentary, however, to go into that subject.

The ICRC’s position on CA3 and AP II NIACs — as requiring hostilities of a certain intensity, and thus as not being triggered by “first strikes” — is an old one. Here is what Pictet said (p. 49) in the ICRC’s 1952 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (emphasis mine):

[I]t was suggested that the term “conflict” should be defined or, which would come to the same thing, that a certain number of conditions for the application of the Convention should be enumerated. The idea was finally abandoned — wisely, we think. Nevertheless, these different conditions, although in no way obligatory, constitute convenient criteria, and we therefore think it well to give a list of those contained in the various amendments discussed; they are as follows:

(1) That the Party in revolt against the de jure Government possesses an organized military force, an authority responsible for its acts, acting within a determinate territory and having the means of respecting and ensuring respect for the Convention.

(2) That the legal Government is obliged to have recourse to the regular military forces against insurgents organized as military and in possession of a part of the national territory.

This statement only implicitly endorsed an intensity requirement, so Pictet clarified that the was talking about actual hostilities between government forces and an organized armed group in the ICRC’s 1960 Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (p. 37):

Speaking generally, it must be recognized that the conflicts referred to in Article 3 are armed conflicts, with armed forces on either side engaged in hostilities –conflicts, in short, which are in many respects similar to an international war, but take place within the confines of a single country.

And just in case that statement remained ambiguous (“both” would have been more precise than “either”), the ICRC clarified in its 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention that of the various indicia of NIAC that Pictet discusses, intensity is one of the two most important ones (emphasis mine):

387  A situation of violence that crosses the threshold of an ‘armed conflict not of an international character’ is a situation in which organized Parties confront one another with violence of a certain degree of intensity. It is a determination made based on the facts.

421  Over time, of the criteria enumerated in the Pictet Commentaries, two are now widely acknowledged as being the most relevant in assessing the existence of a non-international armed conflict: that the violence needs to have reached a certain intensity and that it must be between at least two organized Parties/armed groups. The existence of a non-international armed conflict thus needs to be assessed according to these specific criteria.

422  The wording of common Article 3 gives some rudimentary guidance on its threshold of application: what is required is an ‘armed’ ‘conflict’ not of an international character, in which ‘Part[ies] to the conflict’ are involved. This indicates that for common Article 3 to apply, a situation of violence must have reached a certain level of intensity, characterized by recourse to arms by non-State armed groups that are capable of being Parties to an armed conflict.

According to the ICRC, in short, all NIACs require adequately intense hostilities. The difference between a CA3 NIAC and an AP II NIAC is one of degree rather than kind.

The ICRC Commentaries are only as good as the analysis they contain, so Adil is obviously free to defend an interpretation of Art. 1 of AP II and of Common Article 3 that reads the intensity requirement out of NIAC. In doing so, however, he is clearly breaking with the ICRC.

First Strikes & NIAC: Thoughts on the Haque/Horowitz Debate

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been following with great interest the debate at Just Security between Adil Haque and Jonathan Horowitz over whether the existence of a non-international conflict (NIAC) exists the moment a state launches a “first strike” at an organized armed group or whether hostilities of a certain intensity between the two are required. Adil takes the former position (see here, here, and here); Jonathan takes the latter one (see here and here).

Though Adil’s posts exhibit his typical brilliance, my sympathies lie with Jonathan. To begin with, as a matter of the lex lata, I don’t think the argument is even close: the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities, has overwhelming support from states. After all, the test is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, ratified by 168 states, which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.” And, of course, as the ICRC notes in its new commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the AP II standard is used by a number of more recent conventions that apply to all NIACs — Common Article 3 or AP II — such as the Rome Statute (1998), the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1999), and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2001).

Adil, it is worth noting, has a different interpretation of AP II, one that does not require intensity:

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict. The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

This is a difficult position to defend. The text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government? More importantly, despite some stray practice cited by Michael J. Adams and Ryan Goodman in this post, states have simply never interpreted the AP II standard to require only organization.

Even more problematic, though, is Adil’s argument that the “object and purpose” of IHL counsels against conditioning the application of IHL on adequately intense hostilities:

In my view, we should interpret both the substantive rules of IHL and the conditions for the application of IHL in light of the object and purpose of IHL. The primary object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. Accordingly, IHL should apply to all such military operations. To postpone the application of IHL until a first strike triggers an armed response, or until military operations reach a high level of intensity, would be inconsistent with the object and purpose of IHL.

As regular readers know, whenever I see arguments based on the supposed “object and purpose” of a treaty, I reach for my pen. All too often, such arguments simply use object and purpose to justify interpreting a treaty in a manner that specifically contradicts the intention of the states that drafted and concluded it. And unfortunately I think that is what Adil does here. He defends applying IHL to first strikes by claiming that the “object and purpose” of IHL is “to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations” (emphasis mine). But that is misleading: the object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations in armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, IHL has nothing to say about the danger of military operations — because IHL doesn’t apply. And as discussed above, states have always insisted that a first-strike military operation is not enough to create an armed conflict — IHL applies only once there are adequately intense hostilities between government forces and the organized armed group.

Adil is free, of course, to normatively argue that IHL should apply to first strikes in NIAC because doing so would better protect human beings. I would disagree, but the claim is coherent and deserving of discussion. What he can’t do is base that claim on the object and purpose of IHL, because that would be to use an object and purpose that only applies within armed conflict to justify changing the definition of armed conflict itself. The definition of when IHL applies cannot be determined by reference to what the goals of IHL are once it applies. That definition has to be sought outside of the IHL system — and again, it is clear that states do not want IHL to apply to first-strike military operations against organized armed groups.

There is, however, an even deeper problem with Adil’s argument that the need to protect human beings from military operations counsels a definition of NIAC that does not require adequately intense hostilities: if that is true, there is also no reason why the application of IHL should require armed groups to be organized. All of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement. If we need to protect human beings from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against organized armed groups, surely we also need to protect them from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against unorganized armed groups. After all, Adil’s central argument is that the inherent danger of military operations means that IHL should apply to a first-strike regardless of whether that military operation leads to any kind of hostilities.

I see no convincing response to this criticism. It is tempting to argue that the organization requirement is important because a first-strike military operation against an organized armed group is much more likely to lead to actual hostilities than a first-strike military operation against an unorganized armed group. But Adil rejects the idea that hostilities are relevant to the application of IHL. He believes IHL should apply even if a first-strike military operation meets with no response whatsoever.

Another potential response would be to argue that first-strike military operations against organized armed groups pose greater dangers for innocent civilians than first-strike military operations against unorganized armed groups. But that would be a difference of degree, not of kind — and thus far from a convincing basis for applying IHL to the former and not the latter. I’m also not sure whether the claim is even empirically sound. It is at least equally plausible to assume that states are more willing to use military force against unorganized individuals whom they can assume will not fight back (or will not fight back effectively) than against an organized armed group with the capacity to respond to a first strike with military operations of its own.

Adil’s desire to protect human beings from the dangers of military operations is laudable, but his claim that IHL should apply to first strikes against organized armed groups cannot be sustained. Not only have states insisted that IHL applies only to hostilities that reach a certain level of intensity, the idea that protecting individuals from the danger of military operations requires eliminating the intensity requirement is underinclusive. Those dangers exist for all military operations, even those against unorganized armed groups. So the only consistent — if still objectionable — position is that IHL applies to any military operation launched by a state, regardless of its object. I’m curious whether Adil would be willing to take that position.

Call for Papers: ICTY Legacy Conference

by Kevin Jon Heller

As part of its “ICTY Legacy Dialogues” events, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) is organising in the week of 19 June 2017 a conference on the legacy of the ICTY in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. We invite your participation.

With the ICTY’s closure scheduled for 31 December 2017, the conference aims to enable others to build on the achievements of the ICTY over its 24 year history. The vision is for a series of dynamic dialogues with actors who can take what the ICTY has developed into new areas, with a particular focus on the role of national actors. The conference will explore how the work of the ICTY can inform responses to atrocities and international crimes at a national level in a number of fields.

Examples of topics to be addressed include:

  • Institutional and Administrative Legacy e.g. Witness protection and support – post testimony support: needs and resources; reparations and victim status; gender sensitive witness support.
  • Normative Legacy – Synergies, cross-fertilization, and discrepancies between the jurisprudence of the ICTY, national jurisdictions, regional courts, and other international courts and tribunals; with a special focus on: how ICTY jurisprudence has influenced national jurisdictions, for instance in the region of the former Yugoslavia; and how domestic law and jurisprudence has informed international justice.
  • Operational Legacy/Complementarity – Challenges faced by the Office of the Prosecutor in investigating and prosecuting conflict-related crimes, including challenges in building leadership cases and obtaining access to evidence; OTP’s capacity building challenges and outcomes; perspectives on operational challenges facing national jurisdictions and potential/demonstrated solutions (including through lessons learned and applied from OTP’s experience).
  • Legacy on Access to Justice for Women – The evolution of jurisprudence on conflict-related sexual violence; participation of women in the justice process; working with NGOs and civil society to identify witnesses; protection of sensitive witnesses/victims; compensation mechanisms for sexual violence victims in national jurisdictions.
  • Participatory Legacy – Defence in international criminal trials at international and national courts; defence investigations; defence organizations and offices; rights of the accused.
  • Historic Legacies – Historic value of the extensive records of the ICTY; records as a means of combating denial; access to ICTY records and archives in the region; importance of user friendly information sharing and judicial databases.
  • Non-Judicial Legacy – The ICTY and its limitations; to what extent can a judicial institution contribute to peace and reconciliation; how to fill the gap through non-judicial mechanisms; the importance of memorialisation and the consolidation of the rule of law through capacity building.
  • Leaving a Legacy: Outreach Activities – What should be the scope and goals of outreach on the ICTY legacy after the closure of the Tribunal; what are the needs of local communities in respect of the ICTY’s legacy; what are the responsibilities of different societal actors – e.g. politicians, journalists, the legal community, civil society?

Those interested in presenting a paper at the conference should submit an application via email to the ICTY Legacy Committee at: ictylegacypapers [at] un [dot] org

Applications must include:

  1. A 300-word abstract of the proposed paper;
  2. The author’s name, title, and affiliation (if any);
  3. The author’s curriculum vitae/résumé; and
  4. The author’s contact details including phone number and email address.

All applications must be received no later than 15 December 2016.

Successful applicants will receive by approximately 15 January 2017 an invitation to submit a full paper, and first drafts of papers will be expected to be submitted by 15 April 2017. Submission of an application will be considered as acknowledgement that the author is available to be in Sarajevo (or other regional access point) in June 2017 to participate in the conference. Subject to securing sufficient funding, the ICTY will endeavour to cover travel and/or accommodation costs of successful applicants.

A Quick Reply to Stephen Rapp About the US and the ICC

by Kevin Jon Heller

The inimitable David Bosco dropped quite the bombshell yesterday at FP.com: The Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC intends to open a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan — a situation that includes, as the OTP discussed in its most recent preliminary-examination report, US torture of detainees between 2003 and 2005. I’ll have more to say about the possibility of an investigation in the coming days, when I’m a bit less harried. But I wanted to briefly respond to something Stephen Rapp, the former US War Crimes Ambassador, recently said about that torture — a comment that David reprints in a post today. Rapp contrasted US torture in Afghanistan with the kinds of crimes international criminal justice normally addresses:

[T]he alleged crimes committed during US enhanced interrogations do not reach anything like the scale of these other violations. The Durham review was looking into 101 cases of alleged abuse, including those of two detainees who died in custody. A broader inquiry could increase those number, but even with the widest scope, the numbers of victims pale in comparison to those in the situations that have come before international courts and tribunals.

As is often the case when people discuss crimes potentially within the ICC’s jurisdiction, Rapp’s comment elides the critical difference between situational gravity and case gravity. If the OTP was considering opening an investigation only into US torture in Afghanistan (not “enhanced interrogation”), Rapp would have a point — the situational gravity would almost certainly be insufficient to justify a formal investigation. Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara is a good point of comparison: however unjustifiable Israel’s actions, the numbers simply weren’t large enough to investigate. (And I say that as perhaps the earliest opponent of a quantitative approach to situational gravity.)

But that is not what Bosco says the OTP will do. According to Bosco, and consistent with its previous statements, the OTP will be opening a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan generally — not only crimes committed not by US forces, but also crimes committed by the Taliban, by Afghan government forces, and by other members of the coalition. At most, therefore, US torture will be one case within the overall situation in Afghanistan. That’s critical, because it means that the scale of US torture should be compared to the scale of crimes at issue in other individual cases the OTP has pursued, not to the scale of crimes in other situations as a whole. And there is no question that the OTP has pursued similarly limited cases. To take only the most striking example, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was charged with and convicted of purely victimless crimes — destroying cultural property. If the Al Mahdi case was grave enough for the OTP, surely US torture in Afghanistan would be.

To be clear, I do not expect the OTP to bring charges against an American anytime soon. But if no such case materialises despite the OTP opening a formal investigation into Afghanistan, it won’t be because US torture there is insufficiently grave enough to prosecute.

NOTE: I am using Rapp’s comment to make a point, not to criticise him. I have great respect for Rapp’s commitment to international criminal justice, and I like him very much as a person.

Kim Priemel, “The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to Oxford University Press’s publication of my friend Kim Priemel‘s new book, The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence. Here is the publisher’s description:

At the end of World War II the Allies faced a threefold challenge: how to punish perpetrators of appalling crimes for which the categories of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ had to be coined; how to explain that these had been committed by Germany, of all nations; and how to reform Germans. The Allied answer to this conundrum was the application of historical reasoning to legal procedure. In the thirteen Nuremberg trials held between 1945 and 1949, and in corresponding cases elsewhere, a concerted effort was made to punish key perpetrators while at the same time providing a complex analysis of the Nazi state and German history. Building on a long debate about Germany’s divergence from a presumed Western path of development, Allied prosecutors sketched a historical trajectory which had led Germany to betray the Western model. Historical reasoning both accounted for the moral breakdown of a ‘civilised’ nation and rendered plausible arguments that this had indeed been a collective failure rather than one of a small criminal clique. The prosecutors therefore carefully laid out how institutions such as private enterprise, academic science, the military, or bureaucracy, which looked ostensibly similar to their opposite numbers in the Allied nations, had been corrupted in Germany even before Hitler’s rise to power. While the argument, depending on individual protagonists, subject matters, and contexts, met with uneven success in court, it offered a final twist which was of obvious appeal in the Cold War to come: if Germany had lost its way, it could still be brought back into the Western fold. The first comprehensive study of the Nuremberg trials, The Betrayal thus also explores how history underpins transitional trials as we encounter them in today’s courtrooms from Arusha to The Hague.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship, weaving together legal history, political history, and intellectual history into a seamless and compelling whole. Kim is a superb historian — and one who writes about law as well as most legal scholars. The book also does something almost unprecedented: tell the story of the IMT and NMTs together, which is necessary for understanding both. The book’s only competitor in that regard is Telford Taylor’s wonderful book The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir — but Taylor’s book is, as the title indicates, a memoir, not an “objective” legal history.

Anyone interested in Nuremberg, international criminal law, or transitional justice will want to pick up a copy of The Betrayal. To appropriate Larry Solum: read Priemel!

New Article on SSRN

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted a short article on SSRN, entitled “Taking a Consenting Part: The Lost Mode of Participation.” Here is the abstract:

This short article, my contribution to a special issue of the Loyola International and Comparative Law Review commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial, critically examines “taking a consenting part” in an international crime – a mode of participation that was applied by the Nuremberg Military Tribunals but then disappeared into the ether of international criminal law, never to be seen again. The article is divided into three sections. Section I briefly explains how the NMTs understood the basic principles of individual criminal responsibility. Section II discusses the essential elements of “taking a consenting part” as a sui generis omission-based mode of participation. Finally, using Hadžihasanović at the ICTY as a case study, Section III asks whether international criminal law would be better off if it rediscovered “taking a consenting part” in an international crime.

As always, comments welcome!

Trump Advocates World War III

by Kevin Jon Heller

I know pointing out stupid things Donald Trump says is a fool’s errand — pretty much everything Donald Trump says is stupid. (Note to non-hack conservative friends: I genuinely feel sorry for you.) But I’m struck by how little attention pundits have paid to this gem:

I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.

There are, shall we say, a couple of problems with this suggestion. First, Trump is openly advocating China invading North Korea without provocation. You don’t have to be a Kim Jong-un apologist to suggest that international law might look rather unkindly at that. Second, although China is no doubt “totally powerful” compared to North Korea, North Korea has something of an equalizer — nuclear weapons. (The topic Trump had been asked to discuss.) Does anyone doubt that Kim Jong-un would use them against China if, as Trump wants, China tried to wipe North Korea off the face of the earth?

PS: I’m being good and not pointing out that Trump was openly advocating genocide…

The Guardian’s Remarkable Lack of Concern for Accuracy

by Kevin Jon Heller

I love the Guardian. It’s generally a great paper. But its unwillingness to correct even the most basic mistakes constantly amazes me. In an otherwise interesting article about the ICC and environmental crimes, John Vidal and Owen Bowcott — the Guardian‘s environment editor and legal affairs correspondent, respectively — say this (emphasis mine):

The ICC can take action if the crime happens in any of the 139 countries that have signed up to the Rome Statute, if the perpetrator originates from one of these countries, or if the UN security council refers a case to it. Crimes must have taken place after the Rome statue came into force on 1 July 2002.

This is just wrong. Unequivocally wrong. 139 states have signed the Rome Statute, but only 124 have ratified or acceded to it. The ICC has territorial and active-nationality jurisdiction only over the latter.

I tweeted the correction to John Vidal. He’s ignored it — for reasons that are beyond me, given that it would take a web editor 10 seconds to correct. But perhaps Owen Bowcott is to blame: a few years ago he not only refused to correct his blatant mistake concerning the ICTY’s holding in Perisic regarding specific direction, he repeated his mistake in a later article on Charles Taylor.

New Essay: What Is an International Crime? (A Revisionist History)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted the essay on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The question “what is an international crime?” has two aspects. First, it asks us to identify which acts qualify as international crimes. Second, and more fundamentally, it asks us to identify what is distinctive about an international crime – what makes an international crime different from a transnational crime or an ordinary domestic crime.

Considerable disagreement exists concerning the first issue, particularly with regard to whether torture and terrorism should be considered international crimes. But nearly all states, international tribunals, and ICL scholars take the same position concerning the second issue: an act qualifies as an international crime if – and only if – that act is universally criminal under international law. The international-law aspect of the definition distinguishes an international crime from a domestic crime: although some acts that qualify as domestic crimes are universally criminal – murder, for example – their universality derives not from international law, but from the fact that every state in the world has independently decided to criminalize them. The universality aspect of the definition, in turn, distinguishes an international crime from a transnational crime: although a transnational crime such as drug trafficking involves an act that international law deems criminal through a suppression convention, international law does not deem the prohibited act universally criminal, because a suppression convention does not bind states that decline to ratify it.

This definition of an international crime, however, leads to an obvious question: how exactly does an act become universally criminal under international law? Two very different answers are possible – and the goal of this article is to adjudicate between them. The first answer, what I call the “direct criminalization thesis” (DCT), is that certain acts are universally criminal because they are directly criminalized by international law itself, regardless of whether states criminalize them. Nearly every modern ICL scholar takes this position, as does the ILC.

The second answer, what I call the “national criminalization thesis” (NCT), rejects the idea that international law bypasses domestic law by directly criminalizing particular acts. According to the NCT, certain acts are universally criminal under international law – and thus qualify as true international crimes – because international law obligates every state in the world to criminalize and prosecute them. No modern ICL scholar has taken this approach, although intimations of it date back to Grotius.

Which thesis is correct? This article argues that it depends on whether we adopt a naturalist or positivist approach to international law. Although every international criminal tribunal has insisted that international crimes are positivist, not naturalist, phenomena, no extant theory of positivism – not even so-called “instant custom” – is capable of justifying the idea that certain acts are directly criminalized by international law. On the contrary: if we take positivism seriously, the NCT provides the only coherent explanation of how international law can deem certain acts to be universally criminal. Maintaining fidelity to the DCT, therefore, requires rejecting positivism in favour of naturalism – with all of naturalism’s inherent limitations.

I have given a number of talks on this topic over the past couple of years, and my positivist critique of direct criminalisation has always proved controversial. The argument in the essay has evolved substantially, but I doubt it will be any more popular. I still continue to be surprised that, with the exception of a somewhat skeptical Roger O’Keefe, no scholar and no court has ever attempted to provide a comprehensive defence of the idea that certain acts (international crimes) are directly criminalised by international law. The idea is simply taken for granted based on a single statement in the IMT judgment and on the work of the International Law Commission. Indeed, as I try to show, direct criminalisation seems to be little more than an article of faith — a naturalist artifact that has proven very useful for the ICL project, which is predicated on the superiority of international law over domestic law. Indeed, my suspicion, merely noted in the essay, is that ICL is inherently naturalist, at least in the form that has the kind of sovereignty-limiting muscle its acolytes believe it should have.

The essay is very long — 30,000 words, nearly 400 footnotes. I’ve submitted it for consideration by AJIL, but I am sure I will revise it substantially before it is ultimately published there or somewhere else. So comments and criticisms are, as always, most welcome.

Human Rights Hypocrisy — Special Rapporteur for Torture Edition

by Kevin Jon Heller

PassBlue published a very disturbing article yesterday about nominations for five vacant UN Special Rapporteur positions. According to the article, although the President of the Human Rights Council, South Korea’s Choi Kyonglim, has endorsed four of the selection committee’s five first choices, he has refused to endorse its first choice for Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Karim Khan QC, in favour of the committee’s second choice, Nils Melzer. There is no question Melzer is a wonderful choice — he’s an accomplished scholar, has vast practical experience with the ICRC, and is a great person. The article suggests, however, that there may be a darker reason for Choi not endorsing Khan — Khan’s defence work at various international tribunals:

Khan has worked in the prosecutor’s office of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, two courts created to try perpetrators of grave crimes in the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. He has also represented victims in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia formed to prosecute culprits of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s.

Khan also has a rich history of defending suspects of mass atrocity crimes. His current clients include William S. Ruto, deputy president of Kenya, who until April was on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity. Khan has also worked on the defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In June, Bemba was found guilty by the court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One academic critic, based in Britain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Khan had not showed enough dedication to protecting victims, given his defense of alleged criminals. This work, the person said, could clash with Khan’s role as special rapporteur if he had been nominated by the council president, should accusations be made against Ruto or other potential clients of his. (The Ruto case was vacated because of witness interference, but could be reopened if new evidence surfaces.)

In his application for the UN role, Khan wrote that “having acted for all sides in cases where torture is alleged, not only helps demonstrate my independence and ability to be impartial, but I believe that it can lend additional credibility to my role as Special Rapporteur.”

The case involving Ruto was deeply marred by witness intimidation, according to Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and judges who heard the case. Fergal Gaynor, who represents victims in the court’s case against Uhuru M. Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, has also questioned the extent of Khan’s commitment to justice for victims of violence.

“Bribery and intimidation of witnesses can and does collapse legitimate cases,” he said. “It is fair to question whether Mr. Khan appreciates how interference with witnesses can completely deprive torture victims of the ability to know the truth about the crimes committed against them, to have the wrongfulness of the torture publicly acknowledged, and to receive fair compensation for that torture.”

In an interview in 2014, Khan said of witness problems in the case, “I’m not sure witnesses have been and are being intimidated in this case. As I said, I have prosecuted and defended and represented the victims, and every single case I’ve been involved in has been headlined by ‘This is unprecedented witness intimidation’ and ‘unprecedented’ this and that.”

John Washburn, convener of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, based at Columbia University, said the issue was “whether Khan’s actions as Ruto’s defense counsel displayed values and judgments that reflect on his suitability as rapporteur.”

The article is careful to avoid directly attributing these ideas to Choi. But given that Khan is the only first-choice candidate Choi has refused to endorse, it seems highly likely that Khan’s defence work is the reason. If so, that’s shocking. Defending individuals accused of serious international crimes is not inconsistent with human-rights work — it is human-rights work. It’s not an accident that Art. 14 of the ICCPR protects a defendant’s right to a fair trial. After all, show trials are a hallmark of repressive states, from Bangladesh to the United States.

This should be Human Rights 101. For some reason, though, the same “human-rights activists” who condemn unfair domestic criminal trials — special courts in Bangladesh and military commissions in the United States alike — fall silent when it comes to international trials. The tacit assumption — which should embarrass anyone who claims to care about human rights — is that an effective defence is unnecessary at international trials, because investigators always do a good job, the OTP is always motivated by a profound love of justice, judges are always infallible, and defendants are always guilty. All of those things are sometimes true. Perhaps even usually true. But not always. Sometimes an international tribunal doesn’t do its job and an innocent person is prosecuted. And it is precisely the job of skilled advocates like Khan to make sure those defendants are not convicted — or convicted only for crimes they actually committed.

I would say this about any defence attorney. (And of course I’m biased, having been one myself.) But it’s particularly appalling that Khan would be vilified for doing his job — anonymously, of course, because the British academic quoted above is a coward who wants to ensure his slander has no professional consequences. (As if anyone really cares what we academics think!) Khan has a sterling reputation as a defence attorney, no matter how contentious some of his trials might have been. I have never seen anyone claim — nor is there even the slightest evidence — that Khan was involved in the Kenyan government’s misconduct in Ruto. And I say that despite being completely convinced that the Kenyan government did, in fact, commit serious misconduct. The comments by Gaynor and Washburn are thus completely misplaced — and all too typical of the tendency, possessed by people who should know better, to conveniently forget that the right to a defence is a human right. But at least Gaynor and Washburn have the courage to attach their names to their opinions!

Finally, although it shouldn’t matter, it is worth remembering — as the article points out, to its credit — that Khan had a distinguished career as an international prosecutor before moving to the other side of the courtroom. He even has experience representing victims. Does he suddenly forget the importance of victims whenever he is retained to act for a defendant? Or does he simply understand that the rights of defendants are no less important than the rights of the other parties to a criminal trial?

I have no doubt Melzer, whom I’ve had the pleasure to know for more than a decade and think the world of, will make an excellent Special Rapporteur. But Khan would have made a great one, as well — and we are left to simply speculate how skilled Khan would have been at convincing states to cooperate with him, given his rich experience defending senior government officials. I hope, despite how it appears, that Choi preferred Melzer for reasons other than Khan’s work as a defence attorney. But if that is why he bypassed Khan, anyone who cares about human rights — all human rights — should be appalled.

The International Criminal Court at 14

by Shehzad Charania

[Shehzad Charania was the Legal Adviser and Head of International Law at the British Embassy in The Hague between January 2013 and August 2016.  The views set out in this article are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Embassy or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.]

Earlier this year, the King of the Netherlands opened the new permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in a ceremony co-hosted by ICC President Silvia Fernandez and the President of the Assembly of States Parties Senegalese Justice Minister Sidiki Kaba.  The Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon also attended, along with former ICC Presidents and Judges.

In his remarks, the Secretary General said that the inauguration was a “milestone in global efforts to promote and uphold human rights and the rule of law”.  The ASP President said that this was a “day of hope for all victims of mass crimes in the world”.  President Fernandez announced that the Court was “here to stay”.

But setting the rhetoric aside, how does the ICC’s report card look since it opened its doors 14 years ago?

The successes

Clearly, the ICC has come a long way since its establishment in 2002.  It has had notable successes.  The Prosecutor securing a first conviction against Thomas Lubanga was a significant step forward in bringing accountability for the recruitment and use of child soldiers; the second conviction saw the accused Germain Katanga apologise to his victims.  The conviction in March of former DRC Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba was the Court’s first for rape.  Earlier in March, the Court received its first guilty plea when Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi admitted to the destruction of historical and religious monuments in Timbuktu.  And across all the cases, 25,000 victims are formally participating in ICC proceedings, with over 180,000 beneficiaries of assistance through the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims.

The setbacks

But the Court’s successes have arguably been overshadowed by a series of high-profile setbacks. For the Office of the Prosecutor, the most notable have been in Kenya, where the Prosecutor’s six attempted prosecutions for the 2007-08 post-election violence have all ended in failure, the final case against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto collapsing in April.  Last year, the Prosecutor had to withdraw similar charges against President Kenyatta.  In the ruling in the case against the Deputy President, the majority referred to witness intimidation and, in the words of the Presiding Judge, “political meddling”.  But there have also been highly critical judicial decisions regarding the quality of the prosecution’s investigations and evidence across all the Kenyan cases.

The challenges

The Court’s current challenges are stark.  Yet it is important to note that many of these are primarily for its Member States rather than the institution to address.  But failure to deal with them reflects on the effectiveness, legitimacy and credibility of the ICC itself.  Here are some.

First, all the cases and eight of the nine investigations at the ICC are African, leading to accusations of racism and neo-colonialism, and questions around the Court’s legitimacy.  Admittedly, the majority of the Court’s situations were referred to the Prosecutor by African countries themselves.  But the Prosecutor has faced criticism about the fact that in those same situations there have been indictments only of opposition figures, opening up the Court to further accusations of partial justice, and allowing the ICC to be used for political ends.

Second, the absence of the US, Russia, China and India means that there will always be a question mark over the ICC’s relevance.  More urgently, the Court does not have jurisdiction over the worst crimes taking place in the world today: neither Syria nor Iraq are members of the Court, and Russia and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution allowing the ICC to step in on Syria.

Third, inadequate State cooperation remains the biggest obstacle to progress.  Just a few months ago, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber made findings of non-cooperation against Djibouti and Uganda for not arresting Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, in line with their legal obligation under the Rome Statute, when he stepped onto their territory.  And the cases against the Kenyan President and Deputy President, as well as the ongoing investigations into crimes committed in Cote d’Ivoire in 2012, have starkly posed the question of how the Court can prosecute serving high-ranking State officials when it needs the assistance of authorities in those very States to do so effectively.

Fourth, witness tampering is becoming an increasing part of the Court’s workload, diverting precious resources from the investigation and prosecution of the most serious crimes the ICC was set up to deal with.  The Court’s most expensive trial in 2016 was such a case.

Fifth, it takes years to administer international justice in a single case, in part due to the complexity of the crimes involved.  The current timescales could be reduced through more efficient procedures, and this is the ICC President’s top priority.  But these cases will never be as fast as simpler, domestic cases.  Many survivors will die before they see accountability.

Finally, international justice costs money.  And as States begin negotiations on the 2017 budget, they understand that unlike other international organisations they cannot tell the institution what to do – which investigation to open, who to pursue, and who to convict or acquit.  The Court must use States Parties’ own money to pursue individuals in those same States, sometime the heads of those States.  That’s part of the “price” of international justice.

The future

The ICC, therefore, faces an uphill task, not made easier by what is potentially on the horizon.  The Court is already investigating Russian and Georgian actions during the 2008 armed conflict.  And it is conducting preliminary examinations outside Africa – which could lead to full investigations and therefore indictments – in situations relating to: Ukraine, where the Prosecutor is likely to be examining allegations against Russia following the annexation of Crimea; Afghanistan, where amongst other things allegations of detainee abuse by US officials are being considered; possible war crimes by all sides in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and of course Iraq. In addition, within the next couple of years, the Court is likely to have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, opening up a whole new political dimension to the ICC’s work.

But for countries such as the UK which attaches serious importance to the rules based international system, the test of its commitment is about seeing institutions such as the ICC through both the good and the bad times. That means ensuring full cooperation, resisting threats to its independence, speaking up for the Court when it is under attack, and all while continuing to push for serious institutional reform.

More than ever, the ICC needs its friends, in particular States Parties and NGOs, to be constructive critics. At the same time, after only 14 years of existence, we should not be surprised that there is more to do within an institution designed to hold the most powerful individuals to account. Instead of lamenting the fact that the ICC is not perfect, we should celebrate the fact that the Court exists at all, and that it is ready and willing to meet the challenges head on.

Self-Aggrandizement Alert: Two New Publications

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m delighted to announce the publication of two new essays. The first is “The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL,” which is a chapter in Jens’s edited book for CUP, “Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict and Human Rights.”

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I’m very proud of the essay — and all of the contributions to the book are excellent.

The second publication is my article “Radical Complementarity,” which has just appeared in the Journal of International Criminal Justice. Here is the abstract:

In March 2015, a domestic court in Côte d’Ivoire sentenced Simone Gbagbo to 20 years in prison for disturbing the peace, organizing armed gangs and undermining state security — a sentence considerably longer than any sentence imposed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and twice as long as the Ivorian prosecutors requested. The Court has nevertheless held that Gbagbo’s case remains admissible, because her domestic prosecution was not based on the same conduct as the conduct underlying the crimes against humanity charges issued by the Office of the Prosecutor. This article argues that the Court’s decision in Simone Gbagbois inconsistent with the principle of complementarity. Section 1 criticizes the Court’s jurisprudence concerning Article 17’s ‘same person’ requirement, arguing that the test the judges use to determine whether a state is investigating a particular suspect is both inconsistent with the ICC Statute and far too restrictive in practice. Section 2 explains why the ‘same conduct’ requirement is antithetical to the goals underlying complementarity and should be rejected as a matter of law. The article thus defends what we might call ‘radical complementarity’: the idea that as long as a state is making a genuine effort to bring a suspect to justice, the ICC should find his or her case inadmissible regardless of the conduct the state investigates or the prosecutorial strategy the state pursues.

The published version differs substantially from the one I posted a while back on SSRN. You can find the article here.