Blog has moved, searching new blog...

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's alive! Judicial activity (activism?) at The Special Tribunal For Lebanon

In the past week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up in 2007 to prosecute those responsible for the death of Rafik Hariri on the 14 February 2005, has issued several decisions, which, if nothing else, prove that it is still alive. It is however symptomatic of how little progress it is making, at least publicly, that its most important "case" is whether a person arrested and detained for four years in relation to the attack... and then released due to insufficient evidence(!) could request access to his criminal file...

Before deciding on this issue, the President of the Tribunal, Judge Antonio Cassese, had to decide on the motions for disqualification of two Lebanese judges, Judge Riachy and Judge Chamseddine, the former for, among other things, having been involved in the case as a judge on the Lebanese Cour de Cassation before his appointment to the STL, and the latter for having been appointed by an alledgedly biased government. Beyond the legal analysis of the concept of bias in both decisions, and the unsurprising rejection of both motions, there is a noteworthy policy consideration in the  Chamseddine decision:

19. As for the appearance of bias, applying the test commonly employed for ascertaining such an appearance (namely, viewing the facts presented through a hypothetical fair-minded observer with sufficient knowledge of the actual circumstances to make a reasonable judgment), I am satisfied that Judge Chamseddine's nomination by the Lebanese authorities does not create any appearance of bias. Time and again the ICTY and other international tribunals have stated that the nationalities of Judges and the policies of their governments are irrelevant for the purposes of determining impartiality. I only add that the Applicant's submissions, if accepted, would have the deplorable effect that no Lebanese judge could ever sit on any Chamber of the Tribunal - thus frustrating the very nature of its 'hybrid' character, with all of the consequences this entails.
This is certainly true on a case by case analysis, but it still raises the issue of the ambiguity of how international justice intervenes in the first place, especially in "hybrid" fashion. The whole point of international justice is that the national system, presumably including its personnel, is inadequate, because of security, lack of ressources, political pressure, risks of partiality etc. This justified the creation of the ICTY/ICTR removed from local politics. It failed in many ways, but at least the message was clear.
What the "hybrid" model aims at doing is re-introduce some national element to increase "local ownership", but incidentally it also imports within the tribunal, the difficulties that had made its creation necessary (for some) in the first place.Why create a hybrid institution if all is fine (including the judges) with the Lebanese judicial system? Why would the national judges be free of possible pressure when sitting in the Hague? and alternatively, if all it takes is that, why create a hybrid court, rather than just have a lebanese criminal court sit elsewhere than Lebanon? Cassese is right to say that a contrary decision would have defeated the purpose of the tribunal, but one can wonder if the purpose itself need not be rethought...

Moving on to the main decision regarding jurisdiction and standing, the Appeals Chamber had to decide whether, despite the limited scope of its mandate, which is to prosecute those responsible for Hariri's death (and some other related acts), the STL could still have jurisdiction to pronounce itself on the request for access of the criminal file by a formerly detained person which is not a suspect, and whether this person has standing. The answer is "yes" on both counts and I'd like to make two series of remarks on the reasoning.

1. The basis for the decision is the famous "inherent jurisdiction" of the Tribunal to "determine incidental legal issues which arise as a direct consequence of the procedures which the Tribunal is seized by reason of the matter falling under its primary jurisdiction" (§45), even when not explicitely envisioned by the founding documents. This theory has often been used, but its legal foundation has always been unclear. Not so anymore, thanks to Judge Cassese:
"47. The extensive practice of international courts and tribunals to make use of their inherent powers and the lack of any objection by States, non-state actors or other interested parties evince the existence of a general rule of international law granting such inherent jurisdiction. The combination of a string of decisions in this field, coupled with the implicit acceptance or acquiescence of all the international subjects concerned, clearly indicates the existence of the practice and opinio juris necessary for holding that a customary rule of international law has evolved."
This is an extravagantly drafted paragraph on customary law, and shows that the STL will follow in the steps of its predecessors in its approach to this issue, which is unsurprising, given the presence of Antonio Cassese, who started the ball rolling on the "death by judicial activism" of positivism in ICL as President of the ICTY. Still, there are so many unconventional aspects in this statement that I don't know where I could begin.

First of all, since when do non-state actors contribute to the creation of international custom and, linked to this, since when has "State practice" become simply "practice"? International courts have often shown flexibility in assessing the existence of custom and have often resorted to practice of non-State entities (see the recent Cambodia judgement I commented upon). But I don't recall seeing it being so exclusively the basis for the customary norm, with the intervention of States being relegated to having to explicitly oppose such a practice. The core should always be State practice, even if you show more or less flexibility in introducing supporting evidence from other actors.

Second of all, the reasoning is not that clear semantically. The first sentence refers to the existence of a  "general rule of international law" created by international practice, and the second one refers more explicitly to customary law, with slightly different conditions (lack of objection in one case, and implicit acceptance in the other). Several interpretations are possible. 1) We are faced with two different types of norms, which raises the question of the link between the two. 2) Customary law is a sub-category of "general rules of international law", which raises the question of what exactly are "international practice-created" general rules. 3) What seems more likely, is that the judges are using the terms to cover the same thing, which implies, given the different formulations of the two sentences, that the "lack of objection" in the first part of the paragraph is the same as the "implicit acceptance" in the second part of the paragraph. This is an intellectual shortcut (lack of objection might, but does not necessarily mean consent) which would require more elaboration. What is certain, is that this paragraph shows, if not incompetence, at least drafting laziness. It is unprofessional to argue in such a way, such an important issue of international law, with so much unclarity.
Which begs a more general comment on how such an estimed scholar as Antonio Cassese can pen such ill-argued judicial decisions? Or maybe, he has reached such a position in international criminal law that he doesn't need to justify his legal reasoning anymore, just to affirm his legal opinion which passes instantly for legal norms. Which is fair enough, but should he then really be a judge, with the limits that should normally be attached to the function, rather than be an independent (and influential) academic?

Finally, and more fundamentally in my opinion, beyond the debate on the rules relating to the formation of customary law, one has to move back a step and wonder if falls at all in the area of customary law. In the case of inherent powers, we are trying to ascertain an unwritten rule (in a generic sense) relating to the exercise of jurisdiction by international tribunals. How can there ever be national State practice of an international tribunal? it's contextually impossible. The link to States would more logically be found in the establishment of a general principle of law, or, if one wants to show some "progressive thinking", a new category of international procedural principles. Indeed, the STL's drafting is a illustration of a tendency to move towards an autonomised view of the international legal judiciary, but hiding behind a traditional approach. Whether one agrees with this ideology or not, intellectual honesty would require to move away from the traditional notions of sources of international law, and use new ones, rather than trick us into thinking that we are faced with technical changes to the formation of customary law, rather than radical changes in the approach to the international legal order. Methodologically, we must avoid the illusion of thinking that because we use the same term, we are talking about the same thing. It is not because I call a chair a "chair" and a glass a "chair" as well, that you should start comparing them. You will first start by pointing out that this glass, is in fact a glass, not a chair. It is the same here, if we are to speak a common language as scholars and if words are not empty shells, one cannot accept that the "customary law" described by the STL is at all comparable to the "customary law" we had been using before. This is a semantic trap which we should avoid falling into.

[update: Marko Milanovic, over at EJIL Talk!, has also commented on this issue, with the same doubts about the reasoning.]

On the substance of the decision, I'm not entirely convinced by the fact that the STL in fact does have jurisdiction to hear the Applicant on this issue, or that he should have standing. He was arrested in 2005, and was held in custody by Lebanese authorities, not the STL, for 4 years. When the Tribunal started functioning in April 2009, it ordered the release of the person in a little over two weeks. So for the whole period of detention, the STL had some form of authority over him for two weeks, and only through inaction, rather than a positive desire to keep him in custody. My initial reaction would be that it's not the STL's fault or problem if Lebanese authorities violated his rights for so long. Human rights don't exist in an institutional void. The STL never indicted him, considered him as a suspect and more importantly, ordered his detention . He therefore has no procedural rights in relation to that institution. The STL does not technically possess his "criminal" file which he would have a right to access, because it never initiated proceedings of any sort against him. He should turn towards the authorities that did decide on his imprisonment, that is the national ones. If a national judge considers that he should have access to elements in possession of the STL, then it becomes an issue of cooperation between the two orders, which is political and logistical, depending on the arrangements made between the STL and the Lebanese governement, but not judicial in the sense that the Appeals Chamber has considered it as related to the rights of the Applicant, and it therefore certainly doesn't mean that the Applicant should have standing directly before the STL.

This decision is in my view due to a confusion on the exact nature of these international institutions, which are meant to be criminal, but see themselves as human rights institutions. However, in the case of the STL, one can only sympathize with its identity crisis. It's a "hybrid" court, created by treaty/the Security Council, which cannot therefore be considered national, but that has jurisdiction exclusively over crimes contained in the lebanese criminal code, which makes it technically difficult to call it an "international criminal tribunal". The Tribunal is certainly alive, but, torn between different logics, orders and traditions, one has to wonder whether it should have been created at all, and, now that it has, whether is should not be allowed to be "borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Amnesty law Found Unconstitutional in Uruguay: Victory for Human Rights, but what about popular sovereignty?

On monday, the Supreme Court of Uruguay issued a decision condemning the 1986 amnesty law for crimes commited under the military regime that was in power until 1985. I'm not familiar with the constitutional framework in Uruguay and the legal consequences of the decisions. Some report that the law was declared "unconstitutional" (see here): does it mean that the law is immediately inapplicable? Others report that the law was "annuled" (see here). I haven't read the decision (if someone has it in English, i'd appreciate receiving it!) but apparently, the Court invoked Uruguay's human rights obligations to respect victim's right to reparations and to know the truth.

This is a new decision in the trend against amnisties in international law, and is, in this sense not particularly groudbreaking. I won't go into a debate here on the general question of Amnisties (I invite you to read my forthcoming paper on this). What strikes me more particularly in this case, beyond the legal technicalities, is that the law was upheld by referendum, not once, but twice, the last time as recently as 2009, despite strong opposition from rights groups. I find it a little disturbing, in the broader political scheme of things, that the democratic popular expression of opinion be given so little consideration. In 2009, after the referendum, the regional director of HRW said that: "let's not forget that  accountability is not a popular contest that should be decided by majorities". Actually, it kind of is. Society makes a choice to criminalize some conducts and not others. And the least worst way we have come up to evaluate support for such choices is requiring a majority. In other words democracy. What kind of arbitrary criteria allows HRW to decree that democracy is a good thing, except when people don't vote "right"? If the referendum had gone the other way, I'm sure that same person would have applauded the popular support against amnisties.

It is a difficult balance to be struck between majority decisions and minority opinions in any democracy, and a harder balance even between human rights and political compromise in situations of transitions, and I  certainly do not claim to have the answer. But as a rule, I would tend to give quite some credit to the free expression of public opinion as a starting point. The majority principle (with qualifiers or not), is effective in that it allows institutions to move forward. Whereas, minority power can only lead to political stalemate. This is of course schematic, and doesn't mean that there shouldn't be any normative framework (both procedural and substantial) surrounding the exercice of democratic expression. But as a rule of thumb, I have difficulty seeing how a law disapproved by a majority can be politically legitimate.

This reasoning of course implies adopting a collective/social contract approach to political analysis, which is a little removed from the individual approach, where rights emerge from above and social relationships are totally depoliticised. Indeed, how could they not be where the origin of rights is transcendental, rather than emerging from some form of popular consensus? you cannot argue with a priori morality. I find it ironic that such effort was put by intellectual and political leaders over the centuries to free themselves from the Church by breaking down the conflation between the temporal power and the spiritual power, only to see the latter re-enter through the prism of Universal Human Rights in recent years. Apparently, nothing much has changed since the Middle Ages...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Defence counsel immunity at the ICTR: there in theory but harmless in practice?

As you may recall, Peter Erlinder, a defense counsel at the ICTR, made the headlines a few months back (in June) for having been arrested in Rwanda, along with Kagame political opponent Victoire Ingabire, on charges of genocide denial under Rwandan law. The detention did not go well, to say the least, Erlinder having alledgedly tried to commit suicide, and he was released some time later, with charges still pending. At the time, this sparked some interesting debates on the nature of laws prohibiting denial of genocide, and the political use of the such laws in Rwanda (including on this blog).

One key legal question that remained to be answered was the existence and extent of any immunity afforded to Erlinder as a defence counsel, given that, at the time it wasn't entirely clear if the statements that were considered for the charges were made in the course of his work at the tribunal or not. Some weeks ago, on the 6th of October, the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR issued his decision on the immunity of Peter Erlinder, the defense counsel for one of the accused. I didn't have time back then to comment on it, but still wanted to say a few words.

As to the existence of an immunity:

26. [...] Defence Counsel benefit from immunity from personal arrest or detention while performing their duties assigned by the Tribunal and also with respect to words spoken or written and acts done by them in the course of the performance of their duties as Defence counsel before the Tribunal, in order to allow for the proper functioning of the Tribunal in accordance with Article 29 of the Statute.

This decision is based on an interpretation on the MOU between Rwanda and the ICTR, and an application of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunitities of the United Nations. In light of the latter document, Defense Counsel are to be considered experts and
23. [...] While Defence Counsel are not officials of the Tribunal, some guarantee is necessary for the independent exercise of their Tribunal assigned functions which are integral to its functioning. Accordingly, the nature of their mission, which is to engage in preparations for proceedings before the Tribunal, is the defining factor in granting them such privileges and immunities as granted to experts on mission - not their administrative status with the Tribunal. 
This recognition that Defense lawyers should benefit of some form of immunity is welcome, as it would be incompatible with principles that they not benefit from equivalent protection as the Prosecutor.

Where the decision is more problematic is on the extent of the immunity. Indeed, they adopt a narrow reading of the immunity. Basically, the Court finds that because Erlinder is being essentially charged with statements done as an academic or a commentator (except for one of them), and not done directly in the context of the representation of his clients, he was not covered by the immunity. There is some logic to the statement... but it is extremely short-sighted in light of the rationale behind the immunity in the first place. Indeed, The ICTR holds that

30. [...] Ntabakuze's right to a fair trial cannot be protected where Erlinder faces investigation or prosecution in Rwanda on the basis of words spoken or written in the course of his representation of Ntabakuze before the Tribunal.

But how can Erlinder adequately prepare for the defense of his client if he is in jail, whatever the charges? Or if he cannot set foot in Rwanda for fear of being arrested? This completely defeats the purpose of immunity.

This result is due to the in fact suprisingly unsophisticated discussion on the concept of functional immunity in the decision, especially by not taking into account the temporal dimension. On this point, one can refer to the ICJ Arrest warrant case, where it went into some detail on the scope of official immunities. It found, among other things, that (§61):

after a person ceases to hold the office of Minister for Foreign Affairs, he or she will no longer enjoy al1 of the iinmunities accorded by international law in other States. Provided that it has jurisdiction under international law, a court of one State may try a former Minister for Foreign Affairs of another State in respect of acts committed prior or subsequent to his oir her period of office, as well as in respect of acts committed during that period of office in a private capacity.

I know this judgment was strongly criticised in relation to the extent of immunities applying to crimes that fall under the jus cogens category, but for the purposes of our situation it seems to be a perfectly sensible solution. The immunity stands during the time a person is in "function", both for personal and professional activities, in order to allow the good exercise of the function. Once the function seizes, the immunity from prosecution falls in relation to private acts, but remains in place for acts done in an official capacity. This would mean that Erlinder would be immune from prosecution altogether now, but could face charges for his "private" comments later, while still being protected for statements made in the course of his defense, thus continuing to protect the current functioning of the Tribunal, "which requires that Defence Counsel be free to advance arguments in their client's case without fear of prosecution" (§29 of the decision).
It should be point out, as did the ICJ in the Arrest Warrant case (§60) that immunity does not mean impunity. It is mostly a temporary obstacle to prosecution, but does not remove individual responsibility once it is lifted.

It is intellectually puzzling that the Tribunal, having so clearly recognised the necessity for functional immunity, so dramatically fails to recognise the logical practical requirements to give it full effect. As a result, the Appeals Chamber has  proposed a wobbly, and I believe ultimately inefficient system of protection for defense counsel in international tribunals and at the end of day of protection of fair trial rights. This is not the first time, and therefore unsurprsing, but disappointing nonetheless.