Gender-based crimes: A monumental day for the ICC

When it comes to prosecuting sexual and gender-based crimes, there have been few days as significant as today in the ICC’s twenty-one-year long history. The day began with a conviction for sexual violence crimes against male and female victims in the Ntaganda case, followed by the first attempt in any international criminal court or tribunal to prosecute gender-based persecution.

Rosemary Grey (University of Sydney) and Indira Rosenthal (University of Tasmania)[1]

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Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 2)

LONDON – Can journalists give evidence at international criminal trials without compromising their objectivity? What is the probative value of journalistic evidence? What does it feel like to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milošević?

These were some of the questions discussed at the event Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals hosted on 25 October at London’s Frontline Club. The fourth of a series of events on “Ethics and the News”, the panel discussion was organised by the Ethical Journalism Network and Global Rights Compliance, and chaired by Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne.

In part 1 of this post, we described how journalists recounted their experience of testifying at high-profile international criminal trials. At the same event, legal practitioners also gave their thoughts on the role of journalists in such trials.

The lawyers’ view

The next speaker is the Rt Hon. Lord Justice Adrian Fulford, who was elected to serve as a judge before the ICC for a term of 9 years. Tapping into his wealth of experience, Sir Adrian acknowledges the shortcomings of international justice: trials are too lengthy, trials are too costly, not enough cases are brought before the ICC. The current system of international criminal trials, he says, is an intimidating slow-moving machine, something akin to “a Gilbert & Sullivan operetto” taking place in large surroundings, and could benefit from more imaginative ways of giving evidence to make the process less intimidating for witnesses. It is increasingly difficult to get people to testify, Sir Adrien says, but journalists tend to make good witnesses, as the essence of their role is to bear witness to events.

Wayne Jordash QC, of Global Rights Compliance, is more ambivalent: to him, journalistic evidence does not have any heightened probative value. While Jordash emphasizes the role of journalists as watchdogs as crucial (perhaps now more than ever), and agrees that photo and video evidence is critical, he suggests that journalists’ additional testimony does not have a huge bearing on a case. However, journalism is crucial in another, often ignored way: in pushing the information out and catching society’s attention. Through their reporting on human rights violations in the news, war journalists help keep human rights violations in the news cycle – this, Jordash says, helps mount and maintain support, which can in turn lead to better funding to combat such violations.

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Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 1)

Seyi Rhodes Journalists Event

Seyi Rhodes recalls giving evidence at the Gbagbo trial before the International Criminal Court.

LONDON – Can journalists give evidence at international criminal trials without compromising their objectivity? What is the probative value of journalistic evidence? What does it feel like to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milošević?

These were some of the questions discussed at the event Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals hosted on 25 October at London’s Frontline Club. The fourth of a series of events on “Ethics and the News”, the panel discussion was organised by the Ethical Journalism Network and Global Rights Compliance, and chaired by Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne.

The toll it takes to testify

The event started with the screening of a short, harrowing extract of the 1992 documentary Omarska’s Survivors: Bosnia 1992.

As the lights come back on, we hear from the first panelist, former Guardian and Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy. He is familiar with those images – in fact, he was there when they were filmed, as he and British journalist Penny Marshall managed to gain access to the infamous Omarska concentration camp and exposed the dire conditions of living for prisoners there.

A certain weariness shows on the face of Vulliamy, who explains that they reported the atrocities in Bosnia for “three effing years” before things started to change. Vulliamy bore witness to many human rights violations on the ground, and later repeated that exercise in a different, more judicial setting years later, as he became the first journalist since the Nuremberg trials to testify at an international war crimes tribunal. In total, he testified in ten trials for the prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”), including those of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić.

Would I do it all again?“, Vulliamy wonders out loud. He seems ambivalent. He stresses the difference between objectivity and neutrality; journalists have a duty to be objective, he notes, but as human beings they also cannot stay neutral in the face of horrors and wrongdoing. His answers, however also reveal the personal and mental toll it takes to re-live those experiences in front of a tribunal.

That personal toll is something that two other journalists present that night are all too familiar with.

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Commentary on John Bolton’s Speech Regarding New American Policy on the International Criminal Court

National Security Advisor, John Bolton, delivered remarks today on “Protecting American Constitutionalism and Sovereignty from International Threats.”  In his remarks, Bolton announced a new American policy vis-a-vis the International Criminal Court (ICC or Court).  According to Bolton, the ICC “has been ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous.”  While Bolton, and others in the Trump Administration, are certainly allowed to express their opinion and to craft new policies, it is important that such policies be based on accurate (and not alternative) facts.  The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the most egregious factual errors from Bolton’s remarks.  Any government policy based on inaccurate information and “advertised” through reliance on misleading and inaccurate claims is “ineffective, unaccountable… and outright dangerous.”  In addition, this post will criticize some of Bolton’s arguments as misguided and contrary to the United States’ interests.

Bolton argues in his speech that “[t]he ICC and its Prosecutor had been granted potentially enormous, essentially unaccountable powers, and alongside numerous other glaring and significant flaws, the International Criminal Court constituted an assault on the constitutional rights of the American People and the sovereignty of the United States.”  It is incorrect that the ICC and its Prosecutor have “enormous” or “unaccountable powers.”  The ICC’s jurisdiction is limited temporally as well as rationae materiae (the court can only exercise jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – and in very limited instances, aggression); the court is also constrained by the application of principles of gravity and complementarity.  Moreover, the Assembly of States Parties is an important accountability mechanism over the court – as many readers know, judges can be removed by a two-thirds vote of states parties to the Rome Statute, and a prosecutor can be removed by a majority vote of states parties. Thus, to claim that the ICC somehow wields Harry Potter-like powers which transcend any accountability is simply false.  And, it is unclear why the establishment of the ICC constitutes a constitutional and sovereignty assault against the United States.  The ICC is a treaty-based body; any state, including the United States,  is free to join or not to join this treaty.  If the United States chooses to join the ICC, or any other treaty, potential conflicts with the U.S. Constitution would be resolved through the Supremacy Clause, which establishes the primacy of the Constitution over any inconsistent treaty obligations.  Thus, it is surprising and misleading to claim that the negotiation of a new treaty, like the ICC, is somehow a threat to the United States’ sovereignty or the role of its Constitution.

In addition, Bolton argues that “the Court’s structure is contrary to fundamental American principles, including checks and balances on authority and the separation of powers…..The International Criminal Court, however, melds two of these branches together: the judicial and the executive. In the ICC structure, the executive branch—the Office of the Prosecutor—is an organ of the Court. The Framers of our Constitution considered such a melding of powers unacceptable for our own government, and we should certainly not accept it in the ICC. ”  This is a curious argument: while it may be true that the ICC does not espouse the same separation of powers structure that the United States government does, the United States cannot possibly expect that every treaty-based organization adopt American governance principles.  Multilateral treaties bind multiple nations together and often adopt compromise positions and the “lowest common denominator” of norms; it is not reasonable to expect that treaties would replicate Unites States’ constitutional structures.  And, such replication is not constitutionally mandated.  The United States can become a member of various treaty-based bodies, so long as its obligations under such treaty mechanisms do not directly conflict with the Constitution.  Nothing in the ICC Statute would create such a constitutional conflict.  Thus, Bolton’s argument here is both surprising and unsupported by the Constitution.

Bolton also argues that the ICC “claims ‘automatic jurisdiction,’ meaning that it can prosecute individuals even if their own governments have not recognized, signed, or ratified the treaty.”  This is not true either: the ICC does not have automatic jurisdiction, and Article 12 of its Rome Statute posits that a precondition to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction is that the alleged crimes be committed by a national of a state party, or on the territory of a state party (or if a state accepts the court’s jurisdiction).  Thus, while the ICC may be able to prosecute nationals of a non-party state, this situation is far from automatic, and may only occur if such nationals commit crimes on the territory of a state party.

Bolton claims that the ICC Prosecutor’s request  to investigate Americans for alleged detainee abuse in Afghanistan is “an utterly unfounded, unjustifiable investigation.”  This investigation is not unfounded in and of itself; the investigation will permit the Prosecutor to ascertain enough facts to decide whether to go forward with any possible prosecutions.  Moreover, the investigation is not unjustifiable, as it falls within the Court’s mandate, and as potential prosecutions would satisfy the Court’s temporal and subject-matter jurisdiction.

Bolton proceeds to criticize the ICC because it “claims jurisdiction over crimes that have disputed and ambiguous definitions, exacerbating the Court’s unfettered powers.  The definitions of crimes, especially crimes of aggression, are vague and subject to wide-ranging interpretation by the ICC.”  This claim is inaccurate: the ICC Statute specifically defines the crimes over which the Court has jurisdiction, and the interpretation and application of these definitions is appropriately left in the hands of the Court’s judiciary, in the same manner that the interpretation and application of domestic statutes is bestowed upon domestic judiciaries.  In addition, Bolton then argues that the ICC would somehow claim universal jurisdiction.  “The next obvious step is to claim complete, universal jurisdiction: the ability to prosecute anyone, anywhere for vague crimes identified by The Hague’s bureaucrats.”  There is nothing in the ICC’s Statute to support this conclusion, and while the Rome Statute negotiating record reveals that different states held different views regarding the Court’s reach and structure, it is false to claim that any serious intentions existed to provide the Court with universal jurisdiction over “anyone” or over “vague crimes.”

Finally, some of Bolton’s claims are, while not completely factually inaccurate, misguided and contrary to United States’ interests.  First, Bolton claims that the ICC is ineffective, as it has spent too much money, has prosecuted few individuals, and has not deterred the commission of atrocities in places such as the DRC, Sudan, Libya, or Syria.  This may be a fair criticism of the Court, but accepting such criticism could lead one to adopt a pro-ICC policy, to support the Court, and to ensure that the Court has better funding and better opportunities to truly deter the commission of atrocities, through its investigative and prosecutorial mechanisms.  This approach would benefit both the Court and all states which are committed to principles of accountability and individual criminal responsibility (United States should be positioned as a leader within this group of countries).  Second, Bolton believes that the ICC is superfluous, because of superior United States’ judicial and ethical standards.  According to Bolton, we do not need the ICC because the United States can handle its own investigations much better.  Bolton argues that the ICC’s application of the complementarity principle is “farcical” and  that the Prosecutor will decide which investigation to pursue based on political motives.  While the ICC has been criticized on complementarity grounds (in the Libya case in particular), there is nothing to suggest that the Prosecutor does not consider complementarity issues seriously, in each case that has been initiated with the Court.  And, even accepting that the United States’ judicial system is superior to the ICC, one could imagine a situation where the United States is unwilling to investigate its own wrongdoing; the ICC’s role is to act in such situations and to provide justice and accountability against perpetrators whose home countries choose to shield them.

Last but not least, most troubling is Bolton’s threat against those who cooperate with the ICC.  “We will respond against the ICC and its personnel to the extent permitted by U.S. law.  We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and, we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”  It is absolutely within the United States’ sovereignty to refuse to issue visas/entry to ICC officials who may be foreign nationals (although this would be terrible policy).  However, it is simply unbelievable to announce that the United States would prosecute ICC officials, and other companies or states who assist the ICC, in the U.S. domestic system.  ICC officials are highly respected experts in international criminal law; judges, prosecutors, investigators, and other individuals who have committed their careers to the pursuit of international justice.  Those who assist or have assisted the ICC include our colleagues – the most prominent experts in international criminal law, who have provided advice and expertise to the Court.  What crimes have such individuals committed under United States law? And, how would such prosecutions (even if grounded in U.S. law) affect the United States’ role in international relations and in the world community? John Bolton’s speech is both factually inaccurate as well as misguided, and a new American policy vis-a-vis the ICC, built on Bolton’s remarks, will be detrimental to our own interests and our position in the global community.

For other commentary regarding Bolton’s speech, see here and here.


John Bolton is right (sort of)—the ICC should not be able to prosecute Americans. How US law has major gaps in domestic accountability for war crimes.


US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Photo Credit Gage Skidmore.

It has long been known that US National Security Advisor John Bolton is no fan of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But today marked a dramatic step up in his rhetoric, ahead of the ICC’s decision about an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Despite the fact than any ICC investigation will probably focus on the Taliban, the US is worried that American troops stationed in the country may be vulnerable to prosecution.

Ahead of the ICC’s announcement, Bolton claimed that the US will “ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and, we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.” (However, it seems unclear if the President actually has the legal authority to do this.)

John Bolton is right about one thing: the ICC should not be able to prosecute Americans for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The fact that the ICC can reveals huge gaps in the American domestic legal system’s ability to hold citizens and foreign nations residing in the US accountable for mass atrocities.

Bolton’s pronouncements to the contrary, the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes included in its statute committed by citizens or in the territory of states party to the Rome Statute. That is why the ICC only theoretically has jurisdiction over Americans for crimes committed in Afghanistan (and not, for instance, Yemen). Furthermore, the ICC is a court of last resort. The principle of complementarity means that the ICC can only prosecute individuals if other states are unwilling or unable to prosecute them first.

Despite Bolton’s claim that his opposition to the ICC is to protect American service members, US military personnel are arguably more protected from ICC prosecution by the principle of complementarity than other American civilians. The US military’s court martial system is generally ‘willing and able’ to hold service members accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, there is a huge gap in the American legal systems’ ability to hold American civilians and foreign nationals residing in the United States accountable for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed abroad.

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International Criminal Court poised to interpret the crime of ‘gender-based persecution’ for the first time

20 years after the ICC was established, the Court is poised to rule on the meaning of one of the most controversial words in its statute: ‘gender’.

Until recently, it didn’t look as if the Court would be interpreting the g-word any time soon. But in November 2017, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda cited evidence of gender-based persecution in her request to open an investigation in Afghanistan, suggesting that the Pre-Trial Chamber would need to interpret this crime in the foreseeable future.

Jurisprudence on this point looks even more imminent now, following the arrest of Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, who the Prosecutor alleges was the chief of the Islamic police in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012 and 2013.

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L’adoption par consensus de la résolution en vue de l’activation de la compétence de la Cour pénale internationale à l’égard du crime d’agression


Plusieurs représentants des Etats Parties en consultation avec les Vice-Présidents lors de la session plénière visant à l’adoption de la résolution relative à l’agression.

L’activation de la compétence de la Cour pénale internationale (CPI) à l’égard du crime d’agression a fait l’objet de longues négociations tout au long de la 16ème Assemblée des États Parties (AÉP) qui a eu lieu au siège des Nations Unies, à New York, du 4 au 14 décembre 2017. Après de vifs débats et discussions, la résolution ICC-ASP/16/L.10* en vue de l’activation de la compétence de la Cour à l’égard du crime d’agression a été adoptée par consensus, tard dans la nuit du 15 décembre. Cette contribution vise à rendre compte de quelques positions des États qui ont été exposées tant dans le débat général que lors de l’adoption par consensus de la résolution.

Dans le cadre du débat général, les Pays-Bas ont réitéré leur engagement et leur soutien à la Cour en soulignant que la lutte contre l’impunité était la pierre angulaire du système institué par le Statut de Rome. En ce qui concerne le crime d’agression et l’activation de la compétence de la Cour, les Pays-Bas ont fait valoir que les amendements de Kampala constituent une victoire historique contre l’impunité et que cette AÉP a la chance de pouvoir, à nouveau, écrire l’histoire en consolidant le message porté par Nuremberg, soit celui du triomphe contre la barbarie et de l’égalité devant de la loi. Le Liechtenstein et la Slovénie ont exprimé des positions dans le même sens.

Les Philippines, tout en réaffirmant que la CPI est une Cour de dernier ressort, ont souligné la nécessité de renoncer à la guerre comme moyen de conduite de la politique en soutenant l’activation de la compétence de la Cour à l’égard du crime d’agression et de la guerre afin de se conformer aux obligations découlant de la Charte des Nations Unies, dont l’article 2, § 4, prohibe l’usage de la force dans la conduite des relations diplomatiques.

Le représentant du Costa Rica a rappelé qu’à un an du 20ème anniversaire du Statut de Rome, le fondement de la CPI a été le fondement de l’empire du droit, présentant la Cour comme une institution de valeur exceptionnelle et non comme une organisation internationale de plus. En effet, la figure de la Cour s’avère indispensable aujourd’hui et dans le futur pour sanctionner, en dernier ressort et dans le respect du principe de complémentarité, les crimes internationaux les plus graves. Ainsi, pour le Costa Rica, l’activation du crime d’agression, la garantie de l’indépendance judiciaire de la Cour et du respect du Statut de Rome doivent avoir un caractère dissuasif en vue de la protection des États qui n’ont pas les moyens de repousser une agression armée. C’est pour cela qu’une CPI renforcée répond au besoin de garantir la paix et la sécurité internationales, le Statut de Rome devant être l’instrument suprême pour éradiquer le crime d’agression conformément à la Charte des Nations Unies.

La Suisse a rappelé aux États les engagements pris au titre de la Charte des Nations Unies et a souligné le besoin de renforcer l’interdiction du recours à la force dans les relations interétatiques, en félicitant le Panama qui a été le 35ème État à ratifier les Amendements de Kampala. Si, en 1998, les États sont parvenus à un accord pour inclure dans la compétence de la Cour « le crime des crimes » et qu’en 2010, un accord a été trouvé en vue de la définition de l’agression, il apparaissait essentiel, en 2017, de déterminer l’étendue de la protection des victimes potentielles d’une agression. La représentante suisse a mis l’accent sur la dépendance des petits États du respect de l’ordre international, face à des États puissants qui ont les moyens d’assurer leur propre défense et de faire valoir leurs intérêts, en rappelant que cette décision historique de l’activation revenait à privilégier l’État du droit ou le règne du pouvoir.

Le Botswana, premier État africain à avoir ratifié les Amendements de Kampala, a apporté également son soutien à l’activation du crime d’agression en estimant que l’entrée en vigueur de la compétence de la Cour constituerait un énorme pas dans la progression de la justice pénale internationale grâce à la criminalisation de l’usage de la force illégal pouvant être sanctionné de manière pénale. Dès le débat général, l’État indépendant des Samoa a exprimé sa déception et son découragement de voir le peu de soutien de la part des États à l’égard du crime d’agression et leur volonté de négocier a minima l’activation de la compétence de la Cour à travers les négociations et les discussions.

Les divergences entre les États petits en faveur d’une pleine et entière activation de la compétence de la CPI à l’égard de l’agression, et les États puissants favorables à une activation limitée, se sont reflétées au moment des discussions visant à l’adoption de la résolution finale, bien que tous les États aient manifesté leur souhait en vue d’une adoption par consensus, redoutant le recours au vote.

Tout au long de l’AÉP, les réunions des groupes de travail ont été fermées au public et les débats de la journée de clôture se sont déroulés à huit-clos. Les deux propositions de résolution soumises par la représentante de l’Autriche, en charge de mener les négociations, ont toutes les deux été rejetées par les États. C’est finalement la Vice-Présidence qui a soumis la proposition de résolution finale en soulignant que ce texte n’était pas ouvert à une renégociation. Le texte a été simplement revu en raison d’une erreur substantielle dans un des paragraphes opérants. Cependant, avant son adoption par consensus, de nombreux États ont laissé transparaître leurs inquiétudes, fait valoir plusieurs points de vue et ont tenté de modifier la version finale du texte.

La position de l’État de Palestine exprimée dans le débat général résume assez bien le point de désaccord fondamental, à savoir l’exclusion de la juridiction de la Cour à l’égard du crime d’agression si celui-ci a eu lieu sur le territoire ou à l’égard des nationaux d’un État Partie au Statut de Rome qui n’a pas ratifié les amendements de Kampala et a choisi l’opt-out. Le représentant de la Palestine a pointé le fait qu’il s’agissait d’accorder l’immunité des nationaux et territoires de certains États, en instaurant le régime le plus restrictif pour un crime international. Il était particulièrement en faveur d’une activation consensuelle mais non d’une activation négociée en imposant le consentement nécessaire pour que les nationaux d’un État puissent être traduits devant la CPI et non d’une manière qui n’assure pas une protection suffisante aux États vulnérables. C’est pourtant seulement de cette manière et avec une telle clause que le consensus a pu être trouvé parmi les États, clause figurant au § 2 de la résolution finale ICC-ASP/16/L.10*.

Les défenseurs de cette clause dont le Canada, le Mexique, l’Espagne, le Venezuela, la France, le Royaume-Uni et le Japon souhaitaient également que le § 3 de la résolution réaffirmant les articles 40, § 1, et 119, § 1, du Statut de Rome relatifs à l’indépendance judiciaire des juges de la CPI soit déplacé de cette partie opérative au dernier paragraphe du Préambule. Ces États ont tenté d’imposer cette modification comme nécessaire pour parvenir au consensus. Néanmoins, plusieurs interventions des représentants des États opposés à cette ultime modification et renégociation de la résolution présentée comme finale par la Vice-Présidence de l’Assemblée, ont souligné l’indispensable indépendance judiciaire dont les juges doivent disposer dans l’exercice de leurs pouvoirs et ont fait valoir leur incompréhension à l’égard de la réticence de réaffirmer avec force ce principe fondamental dans le domaine de la justice. Ainsi, après plusieurs discussions et derniers temps de réflexion, cette demande de modification a été rejetée par le Vice-Président et la résolution a pu être adoptée en l’état, par consensus.


La publication de ce billet et la participation de Silviana à la 16e Assemblée des États Parties dans le cadre du Partenariat canadien pour la justice internationale ont été financées par le Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada

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