The ICC Prosecutor’s Final Report on the Iraq/UK Investigation: Concerns Over Complementarity and the Court’s Future Legitimacy

Earlier today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor released the Final Report regarding the status of the preliminary investigation into Iraq/United Kingdom (UK).  In this Report, the Prosecutor concluded that 

on the basis of the information available, there is a reasonable basis to believe that, at a minimum, the following war crimes have been committed by members of UK armed forces: wilful killing/murder under article 8(2)(a)(i)) or article 8(2)(c)(i)); torture and inhuman/cruel treatment under article 8(2)(a)(ii) or article 8(2)(c)(i)); outrages upon personal dignity under article 8(2)(b)(xxi) or article 8(2)(c)(ii)); rape and/or other forms of sexual violence under article 8(2)(b)(xxii) or article 8(2)(e)(vi)) (para. 69).  

Despite the above-mentioned finding, and despite the fact that over 3,000 cases of alleged abuse and atrocities by UK troops in Iraq had been referred to the UK national authorities, that many such cases had resulted in favorable settlements in UK civil courts, and that some such cases had been successfully litigated in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the ICC Prosecutor decided to close this investigation. In this post, I will discuss the procedural history of the Iraq investigation, as well as analyze the Prosecutor’s findings in this Report.  In addition, I will discuss the potential impact of this decision on the future of the ICC.  

Procedural History

The Prosecutor initially opened a brief preliminary investigation into Iraq/ UK, but this investigation was closed in 2006. In January 2014, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) together with Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) submitted an Article 15 communication to the Prosecutor, alleging the responsibility of UK armed forces and other UK officials for war crimes involving systematic detainee abuse in Iraq from 2003 until 2008. In light of this new information, the Prosecutor re-opened a preliminary investigation into this situation in May 2014.  In a 2017 Report, the Prosecutor announced that, following a thorough factual and legal assessment of the information available, it had reached the conclusion that there was a reasonable basis to believe that members of UK armed forces committed war crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC against persons in their custody. This second Iraq/UK investigation was just closed today; the Prosecutor’s rationale for reaching this decision was published in the Final Report.

Prosecutor’s 2020 Final Report

In today’s Final Report, the Prosecutor concluded “that the only appropriate decision is to close the preliminary examination without seeking authorisation to initiate an investigation” (para. 1). The Prosecutor reached this decision on admissibility grounds under Article 17 of the Rome Statute.  The Prosecutor focused both on gravity and complementarity under Article 17; this post will focus on the Prosecutor’s analysis of complementarity, which occupied most of the Report (I note that the Prosecutor determined to perform an admissibility analysis in this case, despite the fact that admissibility determinations do not normally form part of Article 15 Pre-Trial Chamber determinations; according to the Prosecutor, “[a]lthough the Appeals Chamber has recently held that admissibility does not form part of the Pre-Trial Chamber’s determination under article 15(4), it nonetheless stressed the persisting duty of the Prosecutor, under rule 48, to be satisfied that all of the factors relevant to the opening an investigation, including admissibility, are met before proceeding with an article 15 application” (para. 156)).

The Prosecutor explained in the Final Report that the complementarity test under article 17 involves a two-step inquiry, “involving a determination of whether the national authorities are active in relation to the same case (first step), and only if so, whether this activity is vitiated by unwillingness or inability of the authorities concerned to carry out the proceeding genuinely (second step)” (para. 154). According to the Prosecutor, the UK authorities had both acted to investigate these alleged abuses and had shown a genuine willingness to investigate.  

First, the Prosecutor detailed in this Report how the UK authorities had shown action regarding the investigation of their troops’ alleged abuses in Iraq.  The Report explained that the UK authorities established the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), whose original mandate was to investigate cases of alleged death or ill-treatment of Iraqis in British custody.  IHAT had an initial caseload of 165 cases, and it was supposed to conclude its work by November 2012. Over time, IHAT’s caseload expanded dramatically,  as new allegations of death or ill-treatment were received and its mandate was extended first to December 2016 and then to December 2019 (as the Report explained, IHAT was deemed necessary both to discharge the UK’s duty to investigate under British law, as well as under the European Convention on Human Rights; in addition, subsequent proceedings before the ECHR in Al Skeini and others v United Kingdom confirmed that the UK Government had a duty under the European Convention to carry out an adequate and effective investigation into allegations involving British service personnel in Iraq ).  The UK considered the IHAT investigations, and potential prosecutions, as necessary to satisfy the admissibility requirements of the Rome Statute.  In early 2017, following complaints over IHAT’s duration and expense, the UK Secretary of State for Defence announced that IHAT would be closed.  Remaining investigations were taken over by a new investigative unit, known as Service Police Legacy Investigations (SPLI).  IHAT and the SPLI referred a total of nine cases to the so-called Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA), the body which had become charged with determining whether a prosecution will take place.  In all nine cases, the SPA recommended that no charges be brought against the accused individuals.  In February 2020, UK authorities explained to the ICC Prosecutor that the SPA had most likely determined not to proceed with these prosecutions because the SPA applies a higher evidentiary threshold than IHAT/SPLI, and that it was likely that lawyers at the latter “might have considered cases were ready to proceed, whereas the SPA found they were not” (para. 200). In light of all of the steps taken by the UK authorities, and despite the fact that no cases resulted in actual prosecutions, the Prosecutor concluded in this Final Report that the UK authorities had acted for the purposes of the Article 17 complementarity analysis. 

Although the initial assessment of a claim might not lead to a fully-fledged investigation being undertaken (based on the screening criteria), or an investigation or prosecution might be abandoned after a subsequent assessment, the Office considers that it is difficult to argue that the State had remained inactive in relation to such a claim, since such assessments form part of the investigative and prosecutorial process (para. 276)

Second, the Prosecutor determined in the Final Report that the UK authorities had shown a genuine willingness to investigate alleged crimes committed by their forces in Iraq. As the Prosecutor explained, the determination of unwillingness requires, “having regard to the principles of due process recognized by international law”, that “[t]he proceedings were or are being undertaken or the national decision was made for the purpose of shielding the person concerned from criminal responsibility for crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court referred to in article 5” (para. 294). The Prosecutor further emphasized that the concept of being “unwilling” genuinely to investigate is “concerned with a situation in which proceedings are conducted in a manner which would lead to a suspect evading justice as a result of a State not being willing genuinely to investigate or prosecute” (para. 284). The Prosecutor thus reviewed various UK authorities’ actions in this case through the lens of willingness. Serious concerns had been raised against UK authorities, alleging that they did not genuinely intend to pursue prosecutions against their own service members and higher-level officials.  As the Final Report described, despite the fact that over 3,000 potential cases had been referred to UK authorities, the latter failed to initiate a single prosecution.  In addition, former IHAT staff members had raised concerns that this mechanism lacked proper access to evidence and to witnesses, due to UK government interference.  Finally, concerns over undue delays in the proceedings had been flagged as a potential violation of the victims’ rights; such delays, according to some allegations, were the result of the UK authorities’ purposeful policy not to seriously investigate and/or prosecute cases.  Despite such serious concerns regarding the UK government’s “willingness” to genuinely prosecute, the Prosecutor concluded that “the information available does not demonstrate a lack of willingness to genuinely carry out the proceedings, pursuant to article 17(2)(b)” (para. 433).  In fact, the Final Report emphasized that it was not sufficient for the Prosecutor to have concerns over the genuineness of a national authority’s willingness to investigate and prosecute, but that instead it must be demonstrated that such authorities acted in bad faith. According to the Prosecutor,

The primary task of the Office is not to express its view on how it might have proceeded differently in the circumstances, nor to identify areas of disagreement with IHAT/SPLI and SPA’s decision-making and operational assessments of whether cases presented a realistic prospect of obtaining sufficient evidence at the investigative stage or a realistic prospect of conviction to support a prosecution. Nor is it the Office or the Court’s mandate to pronounce on whether a State complied with its duties to provide an effective remedy and fulfilled its procedural obligation to give effect to fundamental human rights enshrined in instruments such as the ECHR. The question is whether there is evidence to establish that the State concerned was unwilling to investigate or prosecute (para. 458).  

In sum, the Prosecutor concluded that the case of Iraq/UK was inadmissible under Article 17’s complementarity requirement, because the UK authorities had sufficiently demonstrated that they had acted to investigate and that they were genuinely willing to investigate.

Potential Impact of the Final Report on the ICC’s Legitimacy

It is possible, and relatively easy, to criticize some of the Prosecutor’s findings, particularly on “willingness” grounds.  It could be argued that the record established sufficient evidence that the UK authorities had reluctantly established IHAT and subsequent mechanisms; that they interfered with the mechanisms’ access to evidence; that they caused undue delays and demonstrated a significant bias against initiating any prosecutions – in sum, that they acted purposefully to shield their own service members and officials from any possibility of prosecution.   Yet, while such concerns are serious, the more fundamental issues raised by this decision to close the Iraq/UK investigation involve future cases and the ICC’s legitimacy.

In light of this decision, it may become relatively easy for other powerful states to evade the ICC’s reach by launching their own “genuine” investigations which result in zero prosecutions.  States such as the United States and Israel may welcome the court’s analysis of complementarity in this Final Report and its conclusion that the UK has been “willing” to prosecute its own soldiers and officials, despite a decade-long investigation which has yielded no cases. Complementarity may become a shield in and of itself, despite the fact that complementarity is actually supposed to ensure that perpetrators aren’t shielded from ICC’s prosecutorial reach. If states are able to avoid the ICC on complementarity grounds in the future, this could seriously undermine the court’s legitimacy. The ICC was established in order to ensure that accountability is imposed on perpetrators of atrocities; despite its relatively weak prosecutorial record, judicial squabbles on its bench, several state withdrawals from its jurisdiction, and some powerful states’ open hostility, the Court could be objectively defended in light of the importance of its fundamental mission.  The imposition of accountability on those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes is objectively one of the most important goals of international criminal justice; an imperfect institution which nonetheless contributes to this goal remains important and legitimate.  If the ICC were to become an easily-avoided forum, which states can bypass by launching sham but “genuinely willing” investigations, then the Court’s fundamental purpose comes into question.  In such circumstances, it becomes difficult to continue to defend the ICC.  For those of us who believe in the pursuit of international justice and in its institutions, including the ICC, the possibility of this type of a complementarity-based challenge to the court’s legitimacy is troubling.

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