Category Archives: international criminal law

ICC Decides Not to Investigate War Crimes in Afghanistan Conflict

International Criminal Court opens its doors to more than 800 visitors on The Hague International Day
Credit: ICC via Flickr

On April 12, 2019, the three judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) unanimously declined to authorize the Prosecutor’s request to conduct an investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. [ICC Press Release] The investigation was set to examine alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the conflict in Afghanistan, and to examine the responsibility of the Taliban and other armed groups, and of Afghan and United States armed forces. See ICC, Situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ICC-02/17-33, Decision Pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute on the Authorisation of an Investigation into the Situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 12 April 2019, paras. 15, 18-24. Despite the Pre-Trial Chamber’s determination that the Prosecutor’s request was credible and met the jurisdictional and admissibility requirements, the Pre-Trial Chamber rejected her request to proceed because it determined the investigation would not serve the “interests of justice” given the limited prospects of a successful investigation that would lead to prosecutions. See id. at paras. 87, 96. Many observers have described the Court as caving to political pressure from the U.S., while others view the decision as a pragmatic use of the Court’s resources. [Amnesty International; Just Security] The Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision came shortly after the U.S. revoked the ICC Prosecutor’s visa to the U.S. and threatened to sanction the Court should it pursue cases against American citizens. [IJRC] The Office of the Prosecutor indicated it “will further analyse the decision and its implications, and consider all available legal remedies” in response. [ICC Statement]

Procedural Background

A preliminary examination on Afghanistan initially opened in 2006. See Situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 12 April 2019, at para. 44. However, the Prosecutor has faced a many obstacles since then, primarily as a result of the lack of cooperation from the authorities under investigation—a reason cited by the Pre-Trial Chamber for rejecting this investigation. See id.

In November 2017, the Prosecutor submitted a request for authorization to initiate an investigation proprio motu pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute. See Situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 12 April 2019, at paras. 2, 5, 29. The Prosecutor’s requested authorization to investigate the alleged crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction that have taken place in Afghanistan since May 1, 2003 (the date that the Rome Statute entered into force in Afghanistan), and alleged crimes that “have a nexus to the armed conflict” but have been committed outside of Afghanistan, in the territory other States parties to the Rome Statute, since July 1, 2002. See id. at para 5.

The Prosecutor provided evidence indicating that since June 19, 2002, the country has been in a state of non-international armed conflict between various armed groups against both the Afghan government and international armed forces supporting the government. See id. at para. 16. Since that time, the evidence shows that in the context of the thousands of civilian deaths that have taken place, many are likely to constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. See id. at para. 15. The request classifies the crimes into three categories according to the alleged perpetrators: (1) the Taliban and other non-state armed groups, (2) the Afghan armed forces, and (3) U.S. armed forces and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). See id. at paras. 17, 18-24. A fourth category was included addressing “other acts by members of international armed forces,” which held out the possibility of uncovering crimes resulting from military operations or torture committed by international armed forces other those falling within the other three categories, but indicated that more information is required to determine whether these events constitute crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction. See id. at para. 25.

A significant number of victims submitted representations to the Pre-Trial Chamber complimenting the information provided by the Prosecutor. See id. at para. 28. In total, the Pre-Trial Chamber received 794 representations on behalf of 6,220 individuals, 1,690 families, 26 villages, one institution, and millions of victims. See id. at para. 27.

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s Analysis

In deciding whether or not to authorize the Prosecutor’s request proprio motu, the Pre-Trial Chamber must make a determination as to whether there is a “reasonable basis” to initiate an investigation and whether the jurisdictional requirements are met before authorizing the investigation. See id. at para. 29. This scenario is distinct from situations in which a State or the United Nations Security Council refers a situation in that the Pre-Trial Chamber exercises heightened discretion, ensuring that all requirements set out in Article 53(1) of the Statute are met. See id. para. 30. In addition to determining whether a “reasonable basis” exists, the Pre-Trial Chamber will consider whether an investigation would “serve the interests of justice,” which requires a consideration of the gravity of the crimes alleged, the interests of the victims, and the feasibility of the investigation under the circumstances. See id. at paras. 33-35.

Jurisdiction & Admissibility

Before addressing these issues, the Pre-Trial Chamber determined whether the crimes alleged fall within the jurisdiction of the Court and whether the request met the admissibility requirements laid out in the Rome Statute. The Pre-Trial Chamber acknowledged that nearly all of the information the Prosecutor provided was based on credible sources and was well-corroborated, stating that “there is reasonable basis to believe that the incidents underlying the Request have occurred.” See id. at paras. 46, 48. It further found that the jurisdictional requirements of ratione loci (the crimes alleged occurred in the territory of a State that is party to the Rome Statute or has accepted the Court’s jurisdiction), ratione materiae (the crimes alleged constitute crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction), and ratione temporis (the crimes alleged occurred after the Rome Statute came into force in the State) had all been met. See id. at paras. 45, 49, 60, 87. With respect to admissibility, the Pre-Trial Chamber was satisfied that the two-fold assessment required under Article 17 of the Rome Statute had also been met: whether the States involved are not or have not conducted their own judicial proceedings on these issues (complementarity), and whether the crimes alleged meet the Court’s severity threshold (gravity). See id. at paras. 71, 75, 77, 79, 86.

Interest of Justice

The final area of assessment the Pre-Trial Chamber undertook was to determine whether under Article 53(1)(c) there are “substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.” See id. at para. 87. The Pre-Trial Chamber noted that without the existence of a clear definition or other statutory guidance on this matter, it would make the consideration based on the “overarching objectives” of the Rome Statute—that the investigation would aid in “the effective prosecution of the most serious international crimes, the fight against impunity and the prevention of mass atrocities.” See id. at para. 89. It then stated that an investigation could only be considered to serve the interests of justice if it appears likely to result in a legitimate investigation and prosecution of cases within a suitable time frame. See id.

Here the Pre-Trial Chamber stated that three issues were of particular importance to this assessment in the Afghanistan investigation. See id. at para. 91. First, the Pre-Trial Chamber concluded that the amount of time that had passed between when most of the crimes were committed and the submission of the request would make it unlikely that viable evidence would be available. See id. at para. 93. Second, the Pre-Trial Chamber determined that changing political situations in the relevant States, including in States not parties to the Statute, make the prospect of cooperation from the governments involved and the surrender of suspects substantially unlikely. See id. at para. 94. Finally, the Pre-Trial Chamber noted that given the realities of the situation, the investigation would be costly and that this would detract from resources that could be allocated to investigations more likely to result in prosecutions. See id. at para. 95.

Thus, the Pre-Trial Chamber concluded that the potential for a successful investigation was significantly limited and that there was little chance that the objectives of the victims would be furthered by continuing. See id. at para. 96. It also indicated that pursuing an investigation that did not fulfill these aims and would possibly incite “hostility vis-a-vis the Court” and undermine its overall credibility. See id. It ultimately decided the investigation into the situation in Afghanistan would not serve the interests of justice and for that reason, declined the request. See id.

International Reaction

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s rejection of the investigation has been particularly controversial given the implication of U.S. forces in the crimes outlined. The Prosecutor’s information, based primarily on the findings of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. Department of defense, provided evidence that U.S. forces and the CIA had committed war crimes including torture and cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and other forms of sexual violence “pursuant to a policy approved by the US authorities.” See id. 24.

Human rights experts and legal scholars have denounced the decision to stop the investigation. Human Rights Watch’s Param-Preet Singh said in a statement that the “ICC judges’ decision to reject an investigation in Afghanistan is a devastating blow for victims,” and that “[i]t sends a dangerous message to perpetrators that they can put themselves beyond the reach of the law just by being uncooperative.” [NPR] Biraj Patnaik, of Amnesty International stated that “the decision ultimately will be seen as a craven capitulation to Washington’s bullying and threats,” further weakening the Court’s credibility. [Amnesty International] Legal scholars have expressed their skepticism regarding the Court’s reasoning with respect to “the interest of justice” determination. [Opinio Juris]

Additional Information

The ICC was established by the Rome Statute, and officially opened in 2002. See ICC, About. The Court has the competence to hear four types of crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. See Id. The ICC has had a total of 28 cases, of which the Court issued final convictions in six cases (eight trial convictions, two of which were overturned on appeal). See id. For more information on the International Criminal Court, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To learn more about the States’ human rights obligations, see IJRC’s Afghanistan Factsheet and United States Factsheet. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room and subscribe to the IJRC Daily.

U.S. Resists International Oversight, Reduces IACHR Funding over Reproductive Rights

Secretary Pompeo Delivers Remarks on the Release of the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

In another effort to both curtail international human rights oversight and advance a regressive view of reproductive rights, the United States Department of State indicated in late March 2019 that it would reduce its financial support for the region’s human rights bodies, which have urged States to repeal laws that criminalize abortion without any exceptions. [Washington Post; PAI] U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the U.S. would reduce its regular contribution to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional intergovernmental organization with 35 Member States, in an effort to target the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM). See U.S. Department of State, Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March 2019); Letter from Lankford et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, United States Senate (Dec. 21, 2018).

The announcement follows other recent efforts by the U.S. to undermine international human rights protections or oversight, including revoking the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s visa to enter the U.S., and efforts to weaken the recommendations on women’s reproductive health and rights during the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. [Reuters: Prosecutor; The Guardian] Read more

U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Absolute Immunity For International Organizations

Panorama of the west facade of United States Supreme Court Building at dusk in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Joe Ravi via Wikimedia Commons

On February 27, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held by a vote of seven to one that international organizations do not have absolute immunity from suit in U.S. courts. See Jam v. International Finance Corp., No. 17-1011, slip op. at 2 (U.S. Feb. 27, 2019). Rejecting the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) argument that international organizations like the IFC maintain absolute immunity from suit in U.S. courts, the Court allowed a case alleging injuries from environmental pollution caused by a power plant that was funded and supervised by the IFC to proceed in a U.S. federal court. See id. at 1-2, 5-6. The Supreme Court held that international organizations are not immune from all suits, such as when those organizations are engaged in commercial activity. See id. at 4, 15. The Supreme Court’s decision now allows the case against the IFC to move forward in U.S. Federal Court in Washington D.C. Although the Supreme Court’s decision did not make a determination on the merits of the case, the Court’s holding opens the door in U.S. courts for other potential suits alleging wrongdoing committed by other international organizations. [Earthrights]

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ECtHR’s Second Inter-State Reparations Judgment Orders Russia Compensate Expelled Georgians

Courtroom of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
Credit: Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has issued its second ever monetary judgment in an inter-State case, ordering Russia to pay the Georgian government 10 million euros as reparations for Russia’s collective expulsion of thousands of Georgian nationals between 2006 and 2007. See ECtHR, Georgia v. Russia (I) [GC], no. 13255/07, ECHR 2019, Judgment of 31 January 2019 (Just Satisfaction). The judgment on reparations follows the Court’s 2014 judgment on the merits of the case, in which it found that Russia’s mass expulsion of Georgians violated the European Convention on Human Rights. See id. at para. 2. If Russia complies with the judgment, Georgia will be responsible for distributing the 10 million euros to a group of 1,500 identified victims, awarding 2,000 euros to each person who was expelled and awarding an additional 10,000 to 15,000 euros to those who had also been detained and ill-treated. See id. at paras. 77, 79. This judgment applies and builds on the Grand Chamber’s 2014 just satisfaction judgment in Cyprus v. Turkey, in which it ordered Turkey to pay 90 million euros in just satisfaction for the enforced disappearance of 1,456 people and various violations against the Greek Cypriots of the Karpas peninsula, by Turkish authorities, dating to 1974. See ECtHR, Cyprus v. Turkey, [GC], no. 25781/94, Judgment of 12 May 2014 (Just Satisfaction).

This case is the first of four cases that Georgia has brought to the ECtHR against Russia since 2007. The second case, concerning Russia’s alleged violation of the European Convention during the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, is currently pending before a Grand Chamber. See ECtHR, Cases pending before the Grand Chamber. The third case, which concerned Russia’s detention of several Georgian nationals, was voluntarily dropped by Georgia after Russia released the individuals from detention. [ECtHR: New Complaint] The fourth case, filed in August 2018, concerns alleged violations of rights along the border between Georgian-controlled territory and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [ECtHR: New Complaint] The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. See ICC, Situation in Georgia.

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ICC Acquits Former Ivory Coast President of Crimes Against Humanity

Laurent Gbagbo at the International Criminal Court
Credit: ICC via Flickr

Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted of crimes against humanity earlier this month when the International Criminal Court (ICC) found insufficient evidence of a common plan or policy to attack civilians during the 2010-2011 post-election violence in the Ivory Coast. See ICC, Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, ICC-02/11-01/15, Oral Decision of Trial Chamber I on the Prosecutor’s Request under Article 81(3)(c)(i) of the Rome Statute, 16 January 2019. The ICC Appeals Chamber has decided Gbagbo and his co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé must remain in custody at least until it reviews the Trial Chamber I’s order to release them, at a hearing scheduled for February 1. [ICC Press Release: Delay] Once the Trial Chamber’s written judgment is filed, the Office of the Prosecutor may appeal the acquittals. [ICC Press Release: Acquittal] ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has confirmed her office will continue its investigations into the Ivory Coast situation, which currently includes pre-trial proceedings against Simone Gbagbo, wife of Laurent Gbagbo, who was granted amnesty for her role in the conflict by current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara last year. [ICC: Bensouda; Guardian: Simone Gbagbo; BBC]

The Gbagbo judgment is the most recent in a line of prominent losses by the ICC Prosecutor, including the acquittal, on appeal, of former Congolese Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba in 2018 and the Court’s dismissal of charges of crimes against humanity against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto in 2015 and 2016, respectively. [IJRC: KenyaIJMonitor: Gbagbo; IJMonitor: Bemba] The ICC Prosecution’s recent failures have raised concerns among some about the Court’s ability to hold accountable those individuals who violate international criminal law. [IJRC: YekatomGuardian: ICC; Guardian: Gbagbo] Gbagbo, the first former head of State to be taken into ICC custody, has the right to request compensation for the seven years that he has spent in detention. See Rome Statute, art. 85(3). Read more

Suspected War Criminal Arrested in Central African Republic, Transferred to ICC

Alfred Yekatom makes first appearance before the ICC
Credit: ICC-CPI via Flickr

Alfred Yekatom, the first person to be transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in connection with the Court’s investigation into crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2012, made an initial appearance before the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber II on November 23. [ICC Press Release: Alfred; FIDH] Mr. Yekatom is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity between December 2013 and August 2014 in the context of the CAR’s ongoing conflict between the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka armed groups. [ICC Press Release: Yekatom] Yekatom is accused of having commanded an anti-balaka group that carried out killings, torture, forced displacement of Muslim civilians and looting and destruction of Muslim homes and places of worship, in western CAR. CAR authorities delivered Yekatom to the ICC on November 17 in compliance with the ICC’s November 11 warrant for his arrest. [ICC Press Release: Situation] On April 30, 2019, the Court will hold a hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations against him and, if so, to transfer his case to the Trial Chamber. [ICC Press Release: Yekatom]

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ICC Seeks Victim Participation in Palestine Situation

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda
Credit: ICC via Flickr

Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court (ICC) pre-trial chamber ordered the ICC to establish a system of disseminating public information to and conducting outreach activities with the affected communities and victims of the situation in Palestine, a situation currently undergoing preliminary examination at the Court. The decision recognizes victims’ right to be heard in the context of the ICC’s work, and requires that outreach activities explain the ICC’s jurisdiction with regards to the situation in Palestine; provide information on the Court, including on the role of victims at each stage of proceedings; and respond to victims’ concerns. See ICC, Situation in the State of Palestine, ICC-01/18, Decision on Information and Outreach for the Victims of the Situation, 13 July 2018, paras. 14-16. The pre-trial chamber’s order marks the first time that the Court has promoted information and outreach activities as early as the preliminary examination stage. [Al Jazeera]

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U.S. Supreme Court Limits Corporate Liability for Human Rights Abuses

Arab Bank, the defendant in Jesner v. Arab Bank
Credit: jo.schz via Flickr

On April 24, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Jesner v. Arab Bank that foreign citizens cannot sue foreign corporations for civil damages in U.S. federal courts for serious violations of international law, such as torture or extrajudicial killings. See Jesner et al. v. Arab Bank, PLC, No. 16–499, slip op. (April 24, 2018). The case was brought against Arab Bank by victims of several terrorist attacks occurring in Israel and the occupied territories. See id. at 1. The plaintiffs alleged that Arab Bank supported numerous terrorist attacks, including those that harmed the victims, by knowingly providing financial services to terrorists, such as accepting deposits it knew were donations used to fund the attacks and pay money to the families of suicide bombers. See id. at 1-3. The plaintiffs brought their case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which provides that United States federal courts may hear cases, brought by non-nationals, of tort committed in violation of international law. See id. at 1-2. The ATS is an exercise in universal civil jurisdiction, as it extends domestic judicial jurisdiction over actions that occurred abroad to foreign plaintiffs; it has historically been a means for non-U.S. citizens to seek redress for serious human rights violations committed outside of the U.S., although the Jesner decision and previous rulings limit the scope of the statute. See, e.g., Jesner, No. 16–499, slip op. at 1; Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980). Notably, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum limited the scope of the ATS to cases that touch and concern the United States with sufficient force to overcome a presumption against the U.S. extending jurisdiction extraterritorially. See Kiobel et al. v. Royal Dutch Petroleum et al., 569 U.S. 108 (2013); Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004). International human rights bodies disagree over whether States must exercise universal civil jurisdiction over specific human rights abuses, mainly torture, that occurred abroad and by a foreign defendant. [IJRCSee Naït-Liman v. Switzerland [GC], Judgment of 15 March 2018; CAT, General Comment No. 3 (2012), UN Doc. CAT/C/GC/3, 13 Dec. 2012, paras. 22, 26.

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European Court Delivers Landmark Judgment on Universal Jurisdiction & Torture

European Court of Human Rights
Credit: Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons

On March 15, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a landmark decision finding that States are not required to allow victims of torture to sue perpetrators in civil proceedings, in the absence of criminal proceedings, for compensation when the act of torture occurred outside of the territory of the State and the perpetrators are not nationals and are domiciled abroad. See ECtHR, Naït-Liman v. Switzerland [GC], no. 51357/07, ECHR 2018, Judgment of 15 March 2018, paras. 97, 217. Accordingly, the ECtHR Grand Chamber held that States are not obligated under international law to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over acts of torture. See id. at para. 203. Universal civil jurisdiction is the power of a domestic court to resolve claims for monetary compensation without there being any connection between the State where the case is brought and the underlying facts of the case. See id. at para. 177. Although the ECtHR recognized that States were obligated to exercise universal criminal jurisdiction over acts of torture, the ECtHR found that there was no similar obligation for civil claims that are wholly separate from a criminal proceeding. See id. at para. 97. This decision diverges from the position taken by the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) and various international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, Redress Trust, and the World Organization Against Torture. See id. at paras. 52-53, 161, 167-68. The CAT maintains that States are obligated to award reparations for acts of torture, even if the torture occurs outside of the territory of the State, and to ensure that civil liability and redress is “available independently of criminal proceedings.” See id. at paras. 52-53, 161, 167-68; CAT, General Comment No. 3 (2012), UN Doc. CAT/C/GC/3, 13 Dec. 2012, paras. 22, 26. Read more

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