On Friday, April 12th, the International Criminal Court’s pre-trial judges unanimously rejected a request by the court’s chief prosecutor to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan. This was about a week after the US revoked ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s visa over her continuing push to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly pertaining to actions taken by US armed forces and the CIA between 2003 and 2004. For more background on this, please see a recent blog post we have written on this topic.
In their decision on a potential investigation, the judges focused on a lack of cooperation received by the prosecutor and the changing political landscape and instability in Afghanistan, suggesting that these conditions are likely to persist. The central issue at play is one briefly mentioned in our last piece: From an international enforcement perspective, the controversy concerns whether a powerful state can assert its power to give impunity to its nationals when they are under investigation for war crimes.
Article 27 of the Rome Statute was included to avoid this manipulation by powerful actors and to produce equal justice across the world and society. It reads:
This Statute shall apply equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity. In particular, official capacity as a Head of State or Government, a member of a Government or parliament, an elected representative or a government official shall in no case exempt a person from criminal responsibility under this Statute, nor shall it, in and of itself, constitute a ground for reduction of sentence.
Amnesty International has criticized the ICC for failing to hold the line on these standards and for too often giving into state demands. The ICC giving into the political influence of states is clearly an issue in the Afghanistan example, given that the investigation was halted due to a lack of support from the United States. This is a general trend between the ICC and powerful states, as these states have continued to exert their authority in the face of ICC attempts at investigation and prosecution. To begin, although the Rome statute, which set up the court, came into force in 2002, and 123 states are party to it, the US, Russia, China, India and others such as Israel have either not ratified or have rejected the treaty. South African efforts to withdraw from the Rome Statute reveals that even the strongest supporters of the ICC can be fickle when their geopolitical interests are affected by the Court’s activities. The US has been particularly aggressive in threatening ICC officials, with National Security Adviser John Bolton threatening sanctions against ICC officials if they pursue cases against US citizens. Due to the ability of these powerful countries to avoid prosecution, virtually all its cases were in Africa, which has strained the Court’s political base as accusations have emerged of anti-African bias.
This row over ICC authority to investigate American service members and CIA officers has also created an interesting jurisdictional question, as the US objects to the ICC’s jurisdiction over nationals of non-member countries, absent a referral to the court by the United Nations Security Council. However, ICC prosecutors have argued that because Afghanistan is an ICC member country, they have the authority to investigate and prosecute crimes which were committed within Afghan borders. Precedent in the international system might favor the latter interpretation, given that national governments already have the legal authority to investigate and prosecute foreign individuals who commit crimes within their borders. The geography of the crime remains an important factor in determining the jurisdictional limits of different organizations and states and, in the context of the ICC, geographic jurisdiction can be overcome de imperio by the Security Council (with permanent member agreement). The US seems to have generally accepted this premise at a level short of war crimes, given that the State Department website advises that they cannot get US citizens out of jail, state to a court that anyone is guilty or innocent, provide legal advice, or serve as officials interpreters or translators.
The ICC’s lack of capacity to hold powerful states accountable will likely force it to continue to focus its investigations on poorer, less politically powerful countries. Despite attempts by international legal authorities to promote equal justice over the world, investigations and prosecutions coming out of the ICC will continue to promote a culture of immunity within powerful countries and will continue to over focus on African and other politically peripheral countries within the international system.
The current issue of the IELR will carry a more in-depth discussion of the decision by Professor Michael Plachta.
Evan Schleicher is an Editorial Intern with the International Enforcement Law Reporter. He is also an MA candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.