The Crime of Aggression under International Criminal Law: Links with Refugee Law

The 16th Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is already more than halfway done. Many of the themes at the ASP this year is worthy of note, including the election of six new judges, planning for the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, as well as consideration of activation of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression.

Of particular interest is the ICC’s activation of the crime of aggression, which will be the focus of this blog post. The crime of aggression is defined under the Rome Statute as ‘the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations’. The activation and exercise of the ICC’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression is of significance because there are outstanding jurisdictional issues which are to be discussed at the ASP, including whether all States Parties are subjected to the ICC’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, or whether only States Parties which have ratified the crime of aggression amendments are subjected to the ICC’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression (see Coalition of the ICC Backgrounder). This blog post will consider the impact the activation of the crime of aggressions may have on international refugee law.

ASP Work Programme

ASP Work Programme

One can see several parallels between international criminal law and refugee law. While at first glance, international criminal and refugee law may seem distinct from one another, in fact, when operating together, these two fields of law may enhance the functions of the other. First, the purposes of international criminal law and refugee law draw parallels with one another. Second, while international refugee law regime’s main purpose is to protect refugees, in order to do so, it must also protect the institution for asylum, by preventing those who have committed grave crimes from gaining refugee status and corresponding protection. Here, international refugee law borrows from international criminal law so as to ascertain what type of individuals would be excluded from international protection.

 One view of international criminal law’s purpose is to bring justice to victims through the prosecution of an individual for international crimes, i.e. by holding an individual liable for committing mass atrocities. The command responsibility rule is illustrative of this purpose in that high-ranking individuals can be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates. One view of international refugee law is that it offers the widest protection to those deserving through the granting of refugee status. Article 1F(a) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) prevents those who are undeserving of international protection from benefiting from that protection. This provision applies to those who have committed crimes prior to admission as refugees. Article 1F acts to preserve the institution of asylum, and to safeguard the receiving country from criminals who present a danger to that country’s security. Borrowing from international criminal law, international refugee law determines who is deserving of refugee status by excluding those who have committed serious international crimes. By working together, international criminal law brings perpetrators to justice, while international refugee law excludes those who try to find safe havens through acquiring refugee status and corresponding protection.

International refugee law borrows from international criminal law when determining which individuals would be excluded from refugee status under Article 1F(a) of the Refugee Convention. Under Article 1F(a), individuals are excluded from refugee status and corresponding protection where there are ‘serious reasons for considering that: (a) he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes’. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that ‘a ‘crime of aggression’ is essentially a ‘crime against peace’’ in its commentary. A crime against peace is defined as ‘the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations’. This definition of a crime against peace was drawn from the United Nations General Assembly 1974 definition of ‘aggression’ and such definition has been retained in the International Law Commission’s Draft Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind. As can be seen, international refugee law draws upon international criminal law in defining the relevant crimes under Article 1F(a) of the Refugee Convention. This type of close relationship between international criminal and refugee law may enhance respect for the rule of law internationally, while preventing individuals who do not deserve to be protected under the international refugee law regime from attaining refugee status.

As briefly demonstrated, while both international criminal law and refugee law may serve different functions, these two branches of international law, when operating together, may draw upon the other to enhance international respect for the rule of law. The negotiation between States Parties at the ASP will likely clarify the activation and jurisdiction of the ICC over the crime of aggression, which may, in turn, inform how Article 1F(a) may be interpreted by international refugee law adjudicators. Now more than ever, the institution for asylum must be protected from potential abuse by perpetrators of international crimes, so that only those deserving may be given the widest possible protection under the international refugee law regime.

This blogpost and Jenny Poon’s attendance to the 16th Assembly of States Parties in the framework of the Canadian Partnership for International Justice was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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2 thoughts on “The Crime of Aggression under International Criminal Law: Links with Refugee Law

  1. Pingback: INVITATION TO BOOK LAUNCH | IntLawGrrls

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