Category Archives: Public International Law

When Politicians Miss the Point on the International Stage

On 9 March 2015, 47 Republican US Senators wrote an open letter to the Islamic Republic of Iran purportedly to explain how the American system of government works in regards to international agreements. It states, in essence, that no agreement will be binding on the United States without ratification of the Senate, or at a minimum, passage by the Congress as a whole to pass it into law. Otherwise, it would be subject to cancellation by any future administration on a whim.

The Senators, to a degree, have a point. In the American constitutional system there is a limit on the President’s ability to make treaties, international agreements,[1] without congressional involvement. As a matter of American law, as separate from International Law, this is true.[2] However, an international agreement, a treaty, is not only a creature of American law, it lives outside itself at the international level as a binding agreement between States – enforceable between States, regardless of its characterization under national law.

Of importance here is that for an agreement to be binding under International Law it need only be negotiated by, inter alia, “Heads of State” and the expressing the intent of the State to be bound by the agreement.[3] From this point forward the agreement is enforceable at the international level. The formal ratification of the agreement by the Senate, unless written into the text of the agreement itself, is not a requisite for the treaty to be enforceable.

It is true that future American administrations could disavow the agreement, and that Congress could act to undermine its execution. This is the same choice any State faces when it wants to break its international obligations, something that does happen with a certain regularity, unfortunately. However, when done by the United States it continues a disturbing precedent that undermines the entire international system by delegitimizing its conflict resolution mechanisms. It also tends to add fuel to the argument that International Law is nothing more than power politics written down on the page. This is not what any peace loving society should desire, and runs counter to the goals that the Senators seem to be advancing.

While the 47 Senators are correct that a non-ratified agreement is not law in the United States, they underestimate the damage that ignoring such a treaty would have for international peace and security, and its value under International Law.

[1] The Vienna Convention defines a treaty as “means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation.”

[2] For the line on this distinction, see the Avena cycle of cases.

[3] See, Vienna Convention Arts. 7, 11.

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Argentina v. USA?

The Seal of the ICJArgentina has requested that the United States of America accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding recent decisions by US courts against Argentina. The ICJ only has jurisdiction over those cases where all necessary State parties consent to jurisdiction of the Court. The press release can be found here.

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Issues of Immunity: India v. USA

On 12 December 2013, Federal authorities in New York City arrested Mrs. Devuani Khobragade – an Indian consular official – on charges of visa fraud and making false statements. The charges arise out of allegations that Mrs. Khobragade paid her house keeper less than minimum wage after pledging to do so in the housekeeper’s visa application. Such declarations are required to obtain visas for domestic workers to enter the United States.

Immediately after the arrest, Mrs. Khobragade claimed she was not subject to trial because, as a diplomat, she should benefit from personal immunity. Then, following these statements, she was transferred from the Indian consular mission in New York City to the United Nations diplomatic mission. The United States claims any such transfer will not effect the criminal trial. This post will analyze both of these claims: (1) if Mrs. Khobragade is entitled to immunity as a consular official and (2) if her transfer to the United Nations mission would prevent her trial.

Consular Immunity

Article 43 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 provides that,

Consular officers and consular employees shall not be amenable to the jurisdiction of the judicial or administrative authorities of the receiving State in respect of acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.

This provision provides for “functional immunity,” or, in other words, immunity from suit based on official acts. Visa applications and the employment of a domestic are not and should not e considered “official” acts. Their only connection to the work of the mission is that they allow the consular agent more time to work, as they will not need to tend to housework. However, if this were to an official at, all acts by the consular agent could be “official” in that they allow the agent to go about their day. Such total immunity from jurisdiction for the individual agent is better conceived of as “personal immunity” and is not established anywhere in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In fact, it is implicitly excluded.

Article 41(3) of the convention reads in pertinent part,

If criminal proceedings are instituted against a consular officer, he must appear before the competent authorities.

The convention clearly allows the institution and prosecution of criminal cases against consular officials. While agents may not be arrested based on minor charges (as set out in article 41(1)), they are liable to imprisonment upon conviction (this is article 41(2)). These provisions clearly set out the consular officials do not benefit from personal immunity and may therefore be prosecuted.

Considering that the charges against Mrs. Khobragade do not involve “official” acts and her post did not carry personal immunity, the United States may properly prosecute her based on allegations of Visa fraud and making false statements.

Diplomatic Immunity

The Indian solution to the problem of Mrs. Khobragade’s forthcoming trial has been to transfer to the diplomatic mission to the United Nations. A post, it is believed, will prevent her trial. This part of the post will evaluate this proposition.

Article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 states that,

A diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving State.

This rule is not subject to conditions. It is true that article 41(1) sets out that diplomatic agents must respect the law of the receiving State. However, this has nothing to do with immunity or ability to arrest or being subject to trial. Article 39(1) of the convention establishes when immunity begins, and when it ends. It reads,

Every person entitled to privileges and immunities shall enjoy them from the moment he enters the territory of the receiving State on proceeding to take up his post or, if already in its territory, from the moment when his appointment is notified to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or such other ministry as may be agreed.

The immunity continues until the diplomat has had a reasonable amount of time to leave the country as set out in article 39(2).

The terms of the convention clearly subtract diplomats from the jurisdiction of the host State, no exceptions (except waiver by the sending State). This personal immunity ceases upon departure of the diplomat, at which point prosecutions for criminal may be begun, or presumably, resumed. Even if this were not the case, and a prosecution could legitimately continued, the diplomatic agent would not be required to appear in court and could not be taken into custody on conviction. Any enforcement would have to wait until the person lost their diplomatic status, at which point they would already be out of the country and outside the reach of the domestic justice system (extradition could be requested, but it is very unlikely any such request would be granted).

In the present case, should Mrs. Khobragade take up a diplomatic post at the Indian mission to the United Nations, she will likely be out of reach of the American justice system.

There are still some details of this matter than cannot be addressed in a blog post such as this, not all the facts are in. Questions remain as to whether the charges against Mrs. Khobragade are well founded. Information is also lacking regarding the exact procedural mechanisms that are necessary for her to officially transfer to the Indian diplomatic mission to the United Nations. Whatever the specifics, however, it would seem to be counter intuitive if she were allowed to escape justice (and remain in New York) due solely to the clever shuffling of paper resulting in her job moving from one Indian office to another. Unfortunately, from the outside it is not possible to gain access to all the necessary documents to fully analyze the situation and determine what should happen in this specific case.

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The Netherlands v. Russia, Criminal Jurisdiction and The Case of the Artic Sunrise

On 22 November 2013 the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) issued provisional measures ordering the Russian Federation to release the Dutch vessel the Artic Sunrise and her crew from detention and allow them to leave the country. The dispute is about Russian jurisdiction to arrest the vessel (in a technical sense) and prosecute her crew for crimes they allegedly committed. The issue at the heart of the dispute is whether or not Russia violated its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by taking the vessel and her crew into custody while they were in the exclusive economic zone without first asking the Netherlands government for permission to board.

ITLOS ordered the provisional measures because it accepted that the failure to comply with such an order would irreparably harm the Netherlands’ interests pending resolution of the dispute between the two countries. The interests considered by the tribunal being the condition of the vessel and the crew’s liberty interests, both of which being harmed by their detention. As a guarantee pending the resolution of the international dispute (and to guarantee payment of any damages to Russia) the tribunal ordered that the Netherlands take out a bond of 3.6 million.

Russia, for its part, has stated that it will ignore the order for provisional measures, as it does not accept that jurisdiction of the tribunal. In fact, Russia did not participate in the hearing on the Dutch request for the tribunal to intervene.

What makes the issue so interesting is that it appears to conflate the issue of a potential infraction of an international obligation (such as the arrest of the vessel) that is capable of being resolved by the payment of money (economic loss) and the enforcement of national criminal laws (against the crew for their alleged crimes). These two issues are of a type different, one is inherently “civil” in nature while the other has to do with public order. A bond, such as that ordered by the tribunal, can work to guarantee compensation for Russia should the Netherlands lose the suit and be forced to pay – which is the purpose of seizing the boat in the first place. The same cannot be said for the release of the vessel’s crew.

The enforcement of criminal law is not about money (or at least it should not be). The idea behind penal sanction is that punishment will not only deter the culprit from violating the law a second time, but the existence of punishment will deter others from committing crimes in the first place. If the crew of the Artic Sunrise are guilty of crimes under the Russian penal code, their release will effectively prevent their punishment and thereby undermine the effectiveness of Russian criminal justice. Even assuming, however, that these considerations are not relevant, that would still not mean Russia would lack the legal ability to try the crew of the Artic Sunrise because the vessel was seized in violation of UNCLOS.

There is an internationally recognized principle that those who break the law may be tried even if their initial arrest was made in contravention of the law, known as the male captus, bene detentus rule. This rule has been explicitly accepted as a matter of International Criminal Law, and has been applied by States to justify national prosecutions. Some countries object to the validity of this rule of law and choose, as a matter of national law to prevent trial after illegal arrest. No rule of generally applicable customary international law requires such a result.

ITLOS did not address the issues of the enforcement of criminal law or male captus, bene detentus. The basis for its issuing the precautionary measures vis-à-vis the crew of the Artic Sunrise is not clear. It would have been great benefit had the tribunal decided to explain its decision, unfortunately, it did not.

In the end, Russia should comply with the order to release the Artic Sunrise and accept the bond on this matter. This is the correct legal result and it could be good as a political bargaining chip. When it comes to the custody of the crew, however, I cannot say that Russia is entirely in the wrong, at least as a matter of international law on the exercise of criminal jurisdiction.

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The Nairobi Mall Attack: Was it a Crime Against Humanity or War Crime?

On 21 September 2013, a group of armed individuals entered the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya and began what would become a three-day hostage stand-off and shootout with the authorities. At most recent count, the death toll is 72 with over 200 hundred injured. The perpetrators have been identified as being associated with Al-Shabaab, an Islamist group that controls large swaths of southern Somalia. Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced three days of national mourning and vowed that the perpetrators would face justice.[1]

On 24 September 2013, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, issued a press release which read,

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, expresses her deep sympathy to the victims of the appalling attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and to their families and the people of the Republic of Kenya.  She prays that the hostages held in the mall have been safely delivered and for a swift end to this dire situation.

Such attacks by armed groups upon innocent civilians are contrary to international law and may constitute a crime under the Rome Statute, to which Kenya is a State Party.  In expressing her solidarity with the victims, their families and the people of Kenya, and with full respect for the primacy of jurisdiction of the Republic of Kenya, the Prosecutor stands ready to work with the international community and the Government of Kenya to ensure that those responsible for these crimes are brought to justice.

This press release sets out the possibility of classifying the tragedy which took place at the Westgate mall as an international crime by stating that “[s]uch attacks by armed groups upon innocent civilians are contrary to international law.” She then goes on to say that these are crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC.[2] The court has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.[3] Therefore, in order for the ICC to have jurisdiction over crimes committed at the Westgate mall, they will have to fall into at least one of these three categories.

Each category of international crimes has its own detailed doctrines and elements that distinguish them from ordinary “national” crimes that are not punishable under international law. These elements are often referred to as “chapeau” elements or situational elements for the crimes. These can come in the form of objective elements, (such as the widespread or systematic attack or connection with an armed conflict for crimes against humanity and war crimes, respectively) or as a subjective element (such as the specific intent need for genocide).[4] The question therefore is whether or not these contextual elements can be said to have been satisfied in the case of the crimes committed at the Westgate mall.

Considering that Al-Shabaab appeared to be targeting civilians at the mall, and the absence of an armed conflict in Kenya, the appropriate place to begin our analysis seems to be with Crimes Against Humanity.

Crimes Against Humanity

The precondition for classifying an act as a “Crime Against Humanity” as opposed to a domestic crime is that it must have been “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”[5] The concept of attack is then defined to be “a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 [individual crimes, e.g., murder, rape etc] against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack.”[6] The statute itself does not define the terms “widespread” or “systematic.” Nor are these terms defined in the Elements of Crimes, a supplementary interpretative tool for understanding the meaning of the Rome Statute’s provisions.

The definition of “widespread” as used in international jurisprudence is not 100% clear. It is undisputed that “widespread” character of the attack is in reference to the number of victims (as opposed to the territorial scope of the crime), but the language in the jurisprudence has been less broad in its interpretation of the threshold for making this determination.[7]  It is not clear what the numerical inquiry should be when faced with a new situation involving potential Crimes Against Humanity, but it is undisputed that the scale of the attack and number of victims must be considered when making the determination that a widespread or systematic attack has occurred. “Systematic” has been defined as a qualitative element relating to “the organized nature of the acts of violence and the improbability of their random occurrence.”[8]

An individual crime can therefore be prosecuted as a Crime Against Humanity before the ICC when it is committed in connection with a high casualty event or organized act(s) of violence and with knowledge of that event, in furtherance of an organizational policy.[9]

Do the events at the Westgate mall fall into this category?

Before turning to a more statutory analysis, I would like to make a teleological observation on international criminal law, that is, I would like to discuss the purpose of criminalizing behavior at the international level. The thing that separates ICL from municipal criminal law is the interest that it protects, that is, the interests of the international community as a whole. After all, the underlying crimes (murder, rape, enslavement, torture etc) are criminalized by national legislatures all over the world, independent from their status as components of internationally punishable activity. The international community (and therefore each individual State) does not have an interest in punishing every murder or rape in the world. If they did, there would universal jurisdiction for every State to punish every crime committed anywhere in the world according to its own laws regardless of the identity of the perpetrator(s) or the victim(s). However, this is not the case. States must have some form of connection to an event to criminalize and punish it.[10] Similarly, the heinousness of the crime is not enough otherwise every serial killer, torturer or cannibal would be subject to universal jurisdiction, which of course they are not. The same is true of gangland shootouts or systemic violence against the members of minority groups (think of the Klu Klux Klan).

This leads me to believe, based on the purpose of ICL as a protector of international interests, that for an act to be a “widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population” that “attack,” in whatever form it may take, must be something that threatens interests at the international level. I have written elsewhere that the creation of Crimes Against Humanity has seen a continual evolution toward an equation with gross violations of internationally protected human rights. In this light, if the “attack” is not related to gross violations of these internationally protected interests, it cannot be an “attack” within the meaning of Crimes Against Humanity.

The question to answer is then, what international interest was threatened by the events in Nairobi?

I struggle to see what that international interest could be. This event – tragic and hateful, for which the perpetrators must be punished – is a crime of national import. Otherwise, any hostage situation or horrible crime of violence could be characterized as a Crime Against Humanity. The Oklahoma City bombing might qualify (hundreds of people were killed)[11] and the same could be said about the Boston Marathon Bombing (while 3 people died, over 200 were injured – this could otherwise be considered as 200 counts of attempted murder as a crime against humanity). However, both of these acts feel like national crimes – not international crimes, and this seems correct.[12] International crimes and the international justice system should be reserved for those acts that threaten the international system, that are on such a scale that they destabilize a region or a country as a whole.[13] The events of the Westgate mall just fail to reach that level. While an argument can be made that the attack was widespread (there were many victims) or systematic (it was well planned and effectively carried out) – and it is clear they targeted civilians – the event fails to satisfy a teleological analysis of what it means for there to be a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population as a contextual element for the commission of an international crime. For this reason, the ICC should not consider charging those allegedly responsible for the events at the Westgate for Crimes Against Humanity.

But wait, the Prosecutor’s press release states that “[s]uch attacks by armed groups upon innocent civilians are contrary to international law.” This could mean that the charges could be for War Crimes having been carried out by armed groups.

Let’s test that hypothesis.

War Crimes

The precondition for qualifying as a War Crime is that the underlying crime be “closely related to hostilities occurring in territories controlled by [the] parties” to an armed conflict, but not necessarily in a conflict zone.[14] An armed conflict is then defined as occurring whenever “there is a resort to armed force between States or protracted violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a State.”[15]

Without a doubt there is a war going on in Somalia. Al-Shabaab, the group who claimed responsibility for the events at the Westgate, is an active participant in that war, and at times has been on the winning side of major confrontations with Somali national forces.[16] Kenya has at times participated in this conflict on the side of the national forces fighting Al-Shabaab. Could this provide the link to the armed conflict in Somalia so as to qualify the crimes at Westgate as being of international concern?

I think that it can, but not because Al-Shabaab is an “armed group” that killed “innocent civilians.” If this were the case any armed street gang that took actions that resulted in the deaths of innocent bystanders would qualify. And not because Al-Shabaab is fighting in a conflict in Somalia, but because Al-Shabaab is fighting a conflict in Somalia in which Kenya is a participant. Furthermore, and this is necessary, because Al-Shabaab specifically characterized the Westgate events as a reprisal for Kenya’s aiding the Somali government as the reason for its actions. Should any one of these elements (the existence of an armed conflict, both sides participation in that armed conflict and the connection of the events at the Westgate mall to that conflict) fail to be proved before an international criminal tribunal (such as the ICC) it would mean that charges of international crimes would have to fail, the defendants acquitted and the events at the Westgate mall would be chargeable only as municipal crimes.

Conclusion

The statement by the Prosecutor of the ICC about the actions of Al-Shabaab at the Westgate mall as being contrary to international law is most likely an accurate statement. However, her statement failed to clearly set out on what basis the assertion was made. Each category of international crimes has its own detailed doctrines and elements that distinguish them from ordinary “national” crimes that are not punishable under international law. These elements are often referred to as “chapeau” elements or situational elements for the crimes. These can come in the form of objective elements, (such as the widespread or systematic attack or connection with an armed conflict for crimes against humanity and war crimes, respectively) or as a subjective element (such as the specific intent need for genocide). This brief analysis has shown that the crimes at the mall are most likely not chargeable as Crimes Against Humanity, which might have at first glance seemed to be the most appropriate way to charge them. However, a more expansive view shows that they are most likely punishable as War Crimes.

The choice of whether or not to move ahead with international trials for those responsible for the horrors of those three days in Nairobi will be, for lack of a better enforcement mechanism, a political decision. As it is, the Kenyan government has voted to leave the ICC system. This would greatly reduce the likelihood of an international trial leaving any trial to States that can gain custody of the accused and is interested to prosecute them.


[2] It is worth noting that while Kenya is a member of the court, its parliament recently voted to leave that organization. The consequences of this will need to be reviewed in another setting. See, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23969316.

[3] There will also be jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in the future.

[4] See, Joseph William Davids, The Tenth Anniversary of the International Criminal Court: From Crimes Against Humanity to Human Rights Crimes, 18 New Eng. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 225 (2012). There is no indication that this was a genocidal attack, so there will be no further discussion of this crime.

[5] See, Article 7(2), Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. See also, Davids at 233.

[6] Ibid. at Article 7(2)(a).

[7] For example, the ICTR in the Akayesu case articulated that the “concept of ‘widespread’ may be defined as a massive, frequent, large scale action, carried out collectively with considerable seriousness and directed against a multiplicity of victims.” Akayesu para. 580.  Subsequent decisions of the ICTR have echoed this definition, more succinctly, interpreting “widespread” as follows: “scale of the attacks and the multiplicity of victims”, see Muhimana para 257, “large scale, involving many victims” Kajalijeli para. 871. The ICTY has been somewhat looser with its definition of “widespread”, stating that the widespread requirement refers to “the large-scale nature of the attack and the number of targeted persons.” See Dixon p, 178, quoting Kordic Dec. 17 2004 para 94.

[8] Kunarac, appeals, 12 June 2002, para 94.

[9] There is an interesting debate about whether the “plan or policy” requirement of the ICC statute should be restricted to States. However, for the time being this seems to have been settled in favor of including non-State actors. See, e.g., Prosecutor v. Ruto & Sang, Decision on the Confirmation of Charges Pursuant to Article 61(7)(a) and (b) of the Rome Statute, ICC-01/09-01/11-373 (23 January 2013).

[10] This is a very long and complex discussion for which there is unfortunately not enough room here. For summaries purpose, States have jurisdiction over their territory, their nationals and those acts that threaten their national security. I will attempt to address this subject in more detail at a later date.

[11] A single event may constitute an attack against a civilian population and “widespread” means number of those killed.

[12] It is worth noting that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has jurisdiction over a terrorist bombing incident. However, this is not an international tribunal in the strictest sense. It was formed by an agreement with a national government and applies – in addition to international law – the national law of that State. The nature of the STL is a wonderfully interesting subject, but far outside the scope of this humble post.

[13] This would be the case with the unrest in Syria and Libya in recent memory and Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990’s.

[14] See, ICTY, Prosecutor v. Gotovina et. al., Trial Judgment, ¶ 1677 (15 April 2011). See also, ICC, Prosecutor v. Lubanga, Trial Judgment, ¶ 504 (14 March 2012).

[15] ICTY, Prosecutor v. Tadic, Trial Judgment (2 October 1995), cited by Gotovina and Lubanga.

[16] The history of the collapse of Somali is another fascinating and tragic subject of inquiry that this post cannot hope to cover in a way that even remotely pays these events the respect that they are due.

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The {New} International Law at the ELI Projects Conference

Yesterday, today and tomorrow the European Law Institute will be having its General Assembly and discussing its present and future projects. Right now the panel is is using the European Foundation Statute. Later today there will be a discussion on coordination in criminal law proceedings. For more information on his new and important institute, you can see their website here.

I will post pictures of the events as soon as I can.

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The Appeals Judgment in Prosecutor v. Taylor

TaylorThe Special Court for Sierra Leone announced today that the appeals judgment in the case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor will be issued on 26 September 2013 at 11:00 am local time in The Hague.

Mr. Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for crimes committed during the long civil war in Sierra Leone and sentenced him to 50 years. The press-release is available at here.

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