Emerging Voices: Freedom or Restraint? On the Comparison Between the European and Inter-American Human Rights Courts

by Lucas Barreiros

[Lucas E. Barreiros is a Professor of Public International Law and Coordinator of International Human Rights Law Masters Program at the University of Buenos Aires.]

While much attention has been paid to the differences and similarities between the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) as well as to the dialogue between them [see here, here, here and here for examples], none of that attention has been devoted to comparing the one aspect of their work that best and most synthetically captures all that sets them apart – that is, the doctrines of “margin of appreciation” and “control of conventionality”. It is proposed here that more attention should be paid to the explanatory power of these two doctrines in understanding the different identities and diverging trajectories of the ECHR and the IACHR.

As known, the “margin of appreciation” doctrine was developed by the ECHR starting in its Handyside v. United Kingdom judgment. It has been understood to refer, as pointed out by Steven Greer, to “the room for manoeuvre that the Strasbourg institutions are prepared to accord to national authorities in fulfilling their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”. The rationale for allowing this margin of appreciation, as pointed out by the ECHR in Handyside when referring to the conditions set out in the Convention to lawfully restrict the freedom of expression, is that national authorities, “by reason of their direct and continuous contact with the vital forces of their countries (…) are in a better position than the international judge to give an opinion on the exact content of these requirements”.

For its part, the “control of conventionality” was first mentioned by the IACHR in its judgment in the Case of Almonacid Arellano et al v. Chile.The IACHR held that:

“(…) domestic judges and courts are bound to respect the rule of law, and therefore, they are bound to apply the provisions in force within the legal system. But when a State has ratified an international treaty such as the American Convention, its judges, as part of the State, are also bound by such Convention. This forces them to see that all the effects of the provisions embodied in the Convention are not adversely affected by the enforcement of laws which are contrary to its purpose and that have not had any legal effects since their inception. In other words, the Judiciary must exercise a sort of “conventionality control” between the domestic legal provisions which are applied to specific cases and the American Convention on Human Rights. To perform this task, the Judiciary has to take into account not only the treaty, but also the interpretation thereof made by the Inter-American Court, which is the ultimate interpreter of the American Convention.” (emphasis added).

It should be noted that there are two components to the doctrine – one deals with the responsibility of national authorities to ensure that the application of national legislation does not adversely affect the rights under the American Convention of Human Rights; the other, however, is the direct opposite of the “margin of appreciation” as it leaves no room for national authorities to conduct their own assessment and requires them to apply the interpretation of the IACHR.

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MH17 Should Be Framed as Murder, Not as a War Crime

by Kevin Jon Heller

It has become quite common to describe the downing of MH17 as a war crime. In late July, for example, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “[t]his violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” More recently, William Burke-White has said that, for framing purposes, “[t]he time has come for governments and international organizations to call the attack on MH17 a probable war crime.” 

[I]f whoever launched the missile did so with the intent of killing the civilian passengers aboard MH17, the act was unmistakably a war crime.

Even if the objective was to strike a Ukrainian transport aircraft, the act likely constitutes a war crime. Fundamental to the law of war, including the law applicable in non-international armed conflicts, is the principle of distinction – the requirement that fighting parties distinguish between civilian and military targets. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, that duty of care includes doing “everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.”

In this case, many steps could easily have been taken to differentiate MH17 from a military-transport plane, including visual identification (perhaps with binoculars), radar-signature analysis, and a check of the civilian aircraft transponder-code broadcast. If, as seems likely, these basic steps were not taken, even an accidental strike on MH17 would constitute a war crime.

If the Ukrainian separatists did indeed intend to kill civilians, Bill and Navi Pillay are absolutely right to describe the attack as a war crime — in this case, murder and/or intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects (to use the Rome Statute’s terminology). But everything we know to date about the attack indicates that the separatists honestly believed MH17 was a Ukrainian military transport, not a civilian airplane. If so, that changes the legal assessment of the attack considerably. The attack would still qualify as murder under domestic law — but it would not qualify as a war crime, under either the Rome Statute or the jurisprudence of the ICTY. (The latter likely representing the customary definition of the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians or civilian objects, which most states would apply in a prosecution based on universal jurisdiction.)

Let’s go in order. The problem with describing the attack on MH17 as a war crime under the Rome Statute is Article 32(1), which provides that “[a] mistake of fact shall be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility only if it negates the mental element required by the crime.” The actus rei of the war crime of murder and the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects each include a circumstance element: the individuals attacked must qualify as civilians (or as otherwise protected persons). The relevant mens rea for circumstance elements is knowledge, pursuant to Art. 30(3) of the Rome Statute: “For the purposes of this article, ‘knowledge’ means awareness that a circumstance exists.” Black-letter criminal law provides that an honest mistake of fact negatives any mens rea that requires subjective awareness. So if the separatists honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport, they were not aware that they were attacking civilians. In which case they could not be convicted of either the war crime of murder or the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects.

The result is no different under the ICTY’s jurisprudence, even though the ICTY applies a lower mens rea to the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians. A complete discussion of the issue is beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say here that an accused will be responsible for either war crime only if he was reckless toward the possibility that the objects of his attack qualified as civilian. (Dolus eventualis in civil-law terminology.) Recklessness is a subjective mental state in the ICTY’s jurisprudence; as the Trial Chamber noted in Brdjanin, specifically in the context of murder, “the threshold of dolus eventualis entails the concept of recklessness, but not that of negligence or gross negligence.”” Like the ICC, the ICTY recognizes mistakes of fact. As a result, the separatists could not be convicted of either the war crime or murder or the war crime of attacking civilians under ICTY jurisprudence if they honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport: although that belief might have been negligent, even grossly negligent, its honesty meant that they were not subjectively aware they were attacking civilians.

The bottom line is that the accidental downing of civilian airplane based on an honest belief that the airplane was a military objective is not a war crime. Failing to take adequate precautions may violate IHL, but it is not criminal. The downing of MH17, therefore, should be framed not as a war crime but as murder.

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, August 11, 2014

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Asia

Europe

Middle East and Northern Africa

Americas

Oceania

More on the Troubling, But Emerging Article II Humanitarian Intervention Power

by Julian Ku

Now that President Obama and his advisors have offered some more detail on the domestic legal basis for U.S. military’s action in Iraq, I think it is even more clear now than when I first posted on this subject that the administration is relying on some sort of Article II Commander-In-Chief power to “prevent an act of genocide” against a Iraqi minority group.  In reading the administration briefing, it is clear that the need to protect U.S. persons and property is a separate justification for a separate set of air strikes.  I don’t think the Administration is arguing that protecting U.S. life and property requires striking at the ISIS forces threatening the trapped Iraqi civilians.

Both Marty Lederman and Jack Goldsmith have also picked up on this point, with Goldsmith suggesting this would be a troubling extension of the President’s already expansive Article II Commander-in-Chief power. Ilya Somin dismisses this whole approach as going against the text of the Constitution.   I agree with Ilya that this approach is hard to square with either the text or even the history of Article II’s drafting and subsequent interpretations. And I also agree with Goldsmith that this expansion is troubling. But I also think that the President’s invocation of the need to “prevent an act of genocide” as the legal basis for air strikes, along with apparent acquiescence by Congress (so far), sets an important legal precedent for future U.S. presidents.

Events and Announcements: August 10, 2014

by An Hertogen

Events

  • The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (“ICTR”) is organising an International Symposium on the Legacy of the ICTR to be held in Arusha, Tanzania on November 6-7, 2014. With the ICTR’s closure scheduled for 2015, the Symposium aims to provide an opportunity for experts in the field of international justice to reflect on the ICTR’s contributions to the development of international humanitarian law, administration of justice, and promotion of the rule of law, particularly in the Great Lakes Region. We invite experts in the field to submit proposals for papers to be presented during the Symposium. Papers should focus on the topics indicated in the draft programme, which can be found here. The full text of the call for papers can be found here.

Announcements

  • American University Washington College of Law’s Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law is pleased to announce that the American Bar Association, at its Accreditation Committee’s June 26-28, 2014 meeting, approved the LL.M. in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. This new offering by the Academy recognizes the vast interest in the legal community in studying human rights law at American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL). This program is the only LL.M. program in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the United States to offer a hybrid curriculum of its kind in a U.S. law school. With online and residential course components, this program is designed for practitioners and other human rights professionals who wish to pursue advanced studies in international human rights law and humanitarian law alongside their existing work responsibilities. AUWCL has built a significant reputation in this field and it is highly recognized around the world.  Moreover, its unique location in Washington D.C. offers unparalleled opportunities to legal professionals from the U.S. and around the world. Access more information HERE.
  • The School of Law at the University of Reading in the UK has just launched Global Law at Reading (GLAR), a major new teaching and research hub for law staff and students working in public international law, EU law and human rights. The GLAR website has recently been developed and is now live here. This provides up-to-date information on GLAR, including news and events, relevant staff profiles, publications and research, and much more. As such, it is an invaluable resource especially for those interested in studying public international law, EU law or human rights at Reading, whether for one of our dedicated GLAR LLM programmes or the PhD. The GLAR website will be continually updated with news and events concerning the work done in global law areas at the University of Reading, and it will soon feature a regular free podcast featuring debates and papers on GLAR topics.

Last week’s events and announcements can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

Final Thoughts on the Bar Human Rights Committee’s Letter

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kirsty Brimelow QC, the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — and a colleague of mine at Doughty Street Chambers — has responded to my position on the 2009 Declaration, as recounted by Joshua Rozenberg in this Guardian article. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither Rozenberg’s opinion piece nor academic he relies upon, Kevin Heller, cite the text of the 2012 decision in support of their positions. This is hardly surprising given that the decision does not in fact “formally reject” the 2009 declaration.

Although I stand behind my claim that the OTP “formally rejected” the 2009 Declaration in its 2012 decision, Kirsty correctly points out that I did not cite the text of the decision. So I think it’s useful to summarise the text and quote it where appropriate:

[1] The 2009 Declaration purported to accept the Court’s jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine on an ad hoc basis, retroactive to 1 July 2002 (para. 1).

[2] Per Art. 15 of the Rome Statute, the OTP initiated a preliminary examination “in order to determine whether there was a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” (para. 2).

[3] The OTP stated that the first step in that inquiry was to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the events in Palestine. In that regard, it noted that “only when such criteria are established will the Office proceed to analyse information on alleged crimes as well as other conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction” (para. 3)

[4] The OTP pointed out that only a “State” can accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis under Art. 12(1) of the Rome Statute (para. 4), which meant that the key issue with regard to the Declaration was whether Palestine qualified as a State (para. 5).

[5] The OTP concluded that it did not have the authority to decide whether, as a matter of law, Palestine was a State; that responsibility was “for the relevant bodies at the United Nations or the Assembly of States Parties” (para. 6).

[6] The OTP acknowledged that numerous states had acknowledged Palestine’s statehood and that Palestine had applied for membership as a State in the UN, but insisted that although the UN application was relevant, “this process has no direct link with the declaration lodged by Palestine” (para. 7).

[7] The OTP said it “could in the future consider allegations of crimes committed in Palestine” if the statehood issue was “eventually” resolved by the UN or ASP (para. 8).

Although the decision is not the picture of clarity, I still think it qualifies as a “formal rejection” of the 2009 Declaration. The Declaration formally requested the OTP accept jurisdiction and investigate the situation in Palestine. The OTP opened a preliminary examination, as required by the Rome Statute, but then ended that examination at the first step, concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over the events in question because Palestine could not establish that it was a State. That’s a rejection, even if the OTP — to use a common-law phrase — dismissed the Declaration without prejudice.

My guess is that paragraph 8 is the crux of the disagreement between the BHRC experts and me. They are reading it as a statement that the OTP would essentially hold onto the Declaration until the UN or ASP clarified Palestine’s status as a state, at which point it could then advance the preliminary examination. It’s possible — but I think the OTP would have said as much if that’s what paragraph 8 meant. I read the paragraph as making clear the OTP was rejecting the Declaration without prejudice to a later ad hoc declaration — a reading, not incidentally, that seems to square with Fatou Bensouda’s recent statement that the OTP won’t act without a new Declaration or Palestine’s ratification of the Rome Statute.

I also want to make clear that I disagree with Rozenberg’s statement that the BHRC “is at best naive, and at worst misleading, for suggesting [the] legal situation is beyond doubt.” I don’t think there is anything naive or misleading about the letter, even though I disagree with it. These are very difficult issues, over which reasonable people can disagree. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with advocates advocating.

Finally, I want to sincerely apologise to the BHRC for revealing that I had been asked to sign the letter. Although I waited for the letter to appear publicly before commenting on it, I should not have mentioned that I had been approached.

Weekend Roundup: August 2-8, 2014

by An Hertogen

This week on Opinio Juris, the main point of discussion was the ICC’s jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza. Eugene Kontorovich put the spotlight on a recent development at the ICC in relation to Egypt that reduces the chances of the Palestinians’ ICC accession bid being accepted, to which Kevin responded here and Eugene followed up here. In related posts, Kevin pointed out the Bar Human Rights Committee in the UK request to the OTP for an investigation of the situation in Gaza, the OTP’s statement that the ICC lacks jurisdiction, and his podcast on the issue.

Clare Frances Moran contributed an Emerging Voices post on the contribution of international criminal tribunals and courts to the development and promotion of international human rights law. Other posts in this symposium discussed race-based statelessness in the Dominican Republic and a discussion of the impact of extraordinary reparations on the legitimacy of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In other posts, Julian shared his thoughts on Taiwan’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, and criticized Argentina for launching ICJ proceedings against the US, which the latter is unlikely to consent to. He also discussed the Article II “Humanitarian Intervention” powers in light of President Obama’s authorization of airstrikes against ISIS.

Jessica wrapped up the weekly news and listed events and announcements. A very special event is Philippe Sands’ upcoming London premiere of his “A Song of Good and Evil“.

Many thanks to our guest contributors and have a nice weekend!

Emerging Voices: Extraordinary Reparations, Legitimacy, and the Inter-American Court

by David Attanasio

[David L. Attanasio is a professor of law at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá, Colombia, and Doctoral candidate in philosophy at U.C.L.A.]

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the highest authority dedicated to enforcing international human rights law in the Inter-American system—has received deep praise for its influential and innovative reparations decisions (.pdf). Nonetheless, its more innovative reparations measures suffer from a serious problem of legitimacy, in that they do not seem to respond to the human rights violations that the Court identifies. Specifically, in the vast majority of its reparations decisions since 2001, the Court has ordered what I call extraordinary reparations, measures such as human rights training, changes to law and policy, improvements in the justice system, and provision of education, water, food, or public services (preceding links to .pdfs). These typically are in addition to compensation payments and other measures explicitly designed to eliminate the violation’s consequences. Although the Court has not adequately defended its practice of ordering extraordinary reparations, several potential bases of legitimacy may justify its principal decisions. Some extraordinary reparations are disguised orders to cease violations, others seek to repair damage to communities, and some aim to repair victim trust in the state.

Despite the importance of its innovations, the Inter-American Court has not explained why it may order extraordinary reparations, particularly when it has already ordered measures supposedly sufficient to eliminate the effects of past human rights violations. For example, following a forced disappearance (.pdf), the Court ordered monetary compensation for the victim’s family supposedly equivalent to the harm suffered, but went on to order, among other measures, a literacy program for the victim’s mother. The American Convention on Human Rights empowers the Court to order reparations only for identified human rights violations, not to order any measure it thinks might make for a better state or for a more human rights-friendly social environment. It is not an international legislature. However, extraordinary reparations, which often appear aimed at changing the victim’s circumstances, apparently lack any “causal nexus” (.pdf) with a past human rights violation. As states have complained (.pdf), they do not seem to address the violation’s effects, as other reparative measures such as restitution or compensation are supposedly sufficient for that objective. The Court lacks explicit principles in its jurisprudence sufficient to clarify when and why extraordinary reparations might be legitimate.

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The Article II “Humanitarian Intervention” War Power

by Julian Ku

Assuming there really was authorization from the Iraqi government, I don’t have any doubt that the U.S. has the right under the international law to launch new airstrikes in Iraq.  But the domestic authority for the U.S. airstrikes is much more murky, and, as Ilya Somin argues here, Congress might need to authorize continuing military action.

Jack Goldsmith goes through the domestic legal bases for action here: the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda, the 2002 AUMF to conduct hostilities in Iraq, and the President’s inherent power under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. I agree with Jack that, for political reasons, the Administration seems to be relying on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution rather than on either of the statutory authorizations passed by Congress.  But even under Article II, Presidents have usually cited rationales such as the need to act quickly to protect U.S. citizens and their property or to prevent an imminent attack on the U.S or a treaty ally, or a threat to U.S. national security.

But President Obama does not cite any of these reasons in his explanation of why he is authorizing airstrikes to prevent the deaths of the Iraqi civilians trapped in a mountain region.  Instead, he cited the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” in his remarks yesterday. So it turns out that Article II also can be invoked for a purely humanitarian intervention where no U.S. citizens or property are threatened, and the national security interest is not cited.  While I do think there is a very plausible national security rationale for these airstrikes, it is worth noting that President Obama does not cite national security directly in his remarks.  When one looks back at his similar rationale for Article II-based airstrikes in Libya, I think one of President Obama’s legacies will be a new reading of Article II that will allow future presidents to use military force for humanitarian reasons without the authorization of Congress.

Guest Post: More on Morsi’s Shadow on Palestine’s ICC Efforts

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.]

Rumors and speculation about a Palestinian ICC bid continue to abound. However, news accounts about the process behind the PA’s consideration of the issue underline the point I made in a prior post that based on the Morsi precedent, Abbas could not accept the Court’s jurisdiction. I will elaborate on that here, and address some comments about my argument (partly concurred in by Kevin) about the relevance of the Morsi matter to a Palestinian referral.

In a meeting last week Abbas sought “written consent to join the ICC” from other Palestinian factions. According to another account Abbas has a draft acceptance letter, and is “waiting for signature from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” If the PA needs the written consent - not just a political nod- from the Gaza–based factions, it strongly supports the view that the PA government does not have full power to accept jurisdiction on behalf of Palestine, especially for Gaza.

Some might say that if the government is divided and both possible claimants to full powers agree, then any defect is cured (this may be why Abbas wants written authorization).  The argument does not work: the sum of governmental authority is greater than its parts. To accept ICC jurisdiction, especially after the Morsi matter, it must be clear which particular government is in control, and it must be that government that accepts jurisdiction.

The reason to require government control over a state for ICC jurisdiction is it is that government that will be responsible for enforcing the treaty. A joint signature raises myriad intractable problems. Who will ultimately be carrying out the obligations of the treaty? Abbas would presumably not mind signing over authority over Israeli crimes, but then not cooperate with the court in investigating Hamas crimes, saying he has no control there.

If all factions give written consent to join, who has authority to terminate membership?

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Here Comes That Frivolous Argentina ICJ Claim! Oh, And They Have No Jurisdiction Either!

by Julian Ku

As I noted last week, Argentina has been making threats to take the US government to the International Court of Justice over the results of US litigation over their 2002 sovereign debt default.  And so today, Argentina has made good on its threat by filing an application to the ICJ contending that “that the United States of America has committed violations of Argentine sovereignty and immunities and other related violations as a result of judicial decisions adopted by US tribunals concerning the restructuring of the Argentine public debt.”

As the ICJ’s press release notes, Argentina is seeking to found jurisdiction upon the U.S. deciding to grant consent to the case. But the U.S. has no obligation to give such consent, nor does it have any incentive to do so. Nor does Argentina (I suspect) really expect the U.S. to grant consent.  This is almost certainly a way to show its people and the world that it has a grievance, without actually ever having to test that grievance in a judicial proceeding.

And the fact that this lawsuit has no chance of getting to a court is probably a good strategy for Argentina. The actual specific claims are not yet available, but I have a hard time imagining they are anything but frivolous.  The only claim I am aware of that was raised by a commenter to my post last week is that Judge Griesa exceeded his jurisdiction by ordering third-party banks not to pay out moneys on bonds issued under foreign law.  This is an interesting argument, and even if it were plausible, I don’t understand why Argentina has not raised that argument directly to the U.S. courts. And this would still not impact the bonds issued under New York law.

Bottom line: there is no chance that Argentina gets the U.S. to accept jurisdiction before the ICJ. Expect more grandstanding from the Argentine government as it tries to use the ICJ as an international public relations platform.