Earlier this week, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) submitted, on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a communication to the International Criminal Court requesting that an investigation be opened for Crimes against Humanity committed by high-level Vatican officials.
In a nutshell, the submission argues that there is evidence of widespread and systematic abuse (both rape and torture) of a civilian population by priests in a number of countries and that the Vatican, and more specifically Joseph Ratzinger, both in his former capacity as Prefect of the Congreation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and current capacity as Pope Benedict XVI, should be held liable for covering this up, even to the point of promoting it (this last point is a little ambiguous and I'll return to it later).
This idea has been floating around for a while now. Geoffrey Robertson published a book last year arguing for such an approach. I remain skeptical however and think that there are a number of difficulties with the submission.
As a preliminary remark, one should remember that the Prosecutor is under no obligation to proceed from here, neither to open a preliminary examination, nor, of course, to open a formal investigation. The submission by the CCR does not "trigger" the jurisdiction of the ICC, as would a referral by a State Party of the Security Council, and the OTP is not even under an obligation to respond to the submission (although it claims that, for reasons of transparency, it generally will "aim" to respond to communications).
I would like to comment on three aspects: jurisdiction, the scope of the situation, and finally on whether the crime is actually constituted.
- The scope of the situation
Second of all, the submission raises the question of the scope of the "situation" that would be the object of an investigation. Traditionally, situations have been expected to be limited in some way, especially from a territorial perspective. Up to now, this has been the case for all the situations looked into by the Court. The CCR submission, if it was followed would therefore be a first in the history of the Court, by defining a situation through a unity of crimes and alleged perpetrators exclusively, rather than through a territorial criteria. It should be pointed out that this is an implicit consequence of the reasoning of the CCR, because they don't actually explicitely deal with this issue. Three brief comments on this.
1) One should remember that the ICC Statute does not define what a situation is. Therefore, as I've discussed before in relation to the Libya Referral, any challenges to the scope of a situation faces this difficulty of having no statutory guidelines on which to base such a challenge. The case-law has suggested some limitations to the scope of a situation, but these are vague enough for anybody to argue that they could be extended to cover the events in the current submission.
2) It remains that there might be a difficulty with the submission when one considers not so much the concept of "situation" in general, but consider it in relation to the other ICC distinction, namely a "case". Indeed, I might not be able to define a situation, but what the CCR is describing in its communication certainly appears to me to be a "case": they identify a crime, the perpetrators and the mode of liabity. In this sense, the OTP, even should it accept a broader approach to a "situation", would be in violation of the Statute and the rights of the defense should it define the situation in the terms used by the CCR.
3) Which leaves the question open of how this situation would be phrased. One option would be to open a distinct investigation into each of the countries named by the CCR, but in practice, it would still require that it be shown that the crime is constituted based on a transnational policy.
- Is the alleged crime of "Crimes against Humanity" actually constituted? (and another rant on the confusion between HR and ICL...)
Which brings me to my third point : there is the major issue of whether Crimes against Humanity are indeed constituted. There is no doubt that the abuse in the catholic church has been widespread and systematic. Where the communication fails to convince, is on the organizational element required by the Elements of the Crimes in the following way:
"Attack directed against a civilian population"[...] is understood to mean a course of conduct [...] pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack. [...] It is understood that “policy to commit such attack” requires that the State or organization actively promote or encourage such an attack against a civilian population.
A footnote to this paragraph specifies that:
A policy which has a civilian population as the object of the attack would be implemented by State or organizational action. Such a policy may, in exceptional circumstances, be implemented by a deliberate failure to take action, which is consciously aimed at encouraging such attack. The existence of such a policy cannot be inferred solely from the absence of governmental or organizational action
How does this apply to the current situation? For one, no one seems to be arguing that the Vatican set up an actual policy to perpetrate widespread and systematic abuse against persons in the care of priests. It is their "deliberate failure to take action" which is put forward. However, even if the conduct of Church authorities is subject to criticism, I think it falls short of showing that it was "consciously aimed at encouraging such attack". In this sense, when the communication says that the Vatican has been dealing with such situations in ways that ensured such violence would continue", I think it still does not establish intent, even by omission.
In relation to this, the reasoning of the CCR is even more confusing as regards the modes of liability put forward. Indeed, the CCR is clearly confusing the constitutive elements of the crime and the modes of liability. Let me explain. The CCR considers three possible modes of liability: superior responsibility (Article 28), contribution (25(3)(d)) and aiding and abetting (25(3)(c)). All these modes of liability have in common to be "subsidiary" to the main crime, which still has to be constituted. But the CCR does not do that. It would have to show that independently of the Vatican, its officials are claimed to "only" be the accomplice, the priests that committed the abuse acted under a plan or policy that they had set up, which, again, is not argued here. Indeed, without an established Vatican policy there is nothing that links the individual cases of abuse in a sufficiently organisational way to constitute a crime against humanity.
The consequence of this is that the Vatican officials are either responsible for "direct" commission under 25(3)(a), or not responsible at all. But they cannot be held complicit for a crime that is not constituted independently of them. Which leaves us with one, arguably progressive, but at least coherent way of putting the case forward. It is the systematic cover up of this widespread abuse that constitutes the crime against humanity, not the abuse itself. This would mirror the development under human rights law of positive obligations, whereby if the State does not prevent the violation of a right under the ECHR, for example, by a third party, it is held responsible for the violation of that right. This reasoning would at least solve the issue of the modes of liability and the constitution of the crime.
However, and regular readers of this blog won't be surprised, I am not in favour of such an approach. This communication illustrates once again the slow (and apparently inevitable) blurring of the line between human rights and international criminal law. For me, widespread and systematic human rights violations do not necessarily constitute crimes under international law. These are related, but conceptually distinct domains that should remain distinct. In relation to this, it is unsurprising that the Communication relies heavily on the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber decision that authorized the opening of the investigation in the Kenya situation. I criticised it at the time, agreeing with the dissenting opinion of Judge Kaul, for broadening too much the scope of Crimes against Humanity. I expressed similar doubts in relation to the reference to Crimes against Humanity in the Libyan Arrest warrants. In a way, you can't blame the CCR for its communication. It's a direct consequence of all-encompassing conceptually blurred approach to crimes against humanity by the ICC judges themselves that is to blame. The conduct of the Church in past decades is certainly appalling, requires the utmost attention and should be dealt with accordingly, but, but I remain convinced that the ICC is not the right forum.
Hopefully, the Prosecutor and judges will not fall victim once again to the "boy scout mentality", which leads them to systematically want to save the world with two twigs and a piece of rope, even if someone else might have a far better set of tools...
UPDATE: Of course, another angle to approach this is from a PR perspective. It is clearly the ambition of the CCR to get media attention over the issue. This plays into the general trend of trying to get the ICC involved in every situation, to get some news coverage. Indeed, no situation seems to escape this trend (Palestine, Syria, Tunisia...). As discussed above, I disagree with this conceptually, but I have to admit that it is certainly effective. Thanks Joe for pointing this out.