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A Potentially Serious Problem with the Final Decision Concerning Comoros

A Potentially Serious Problem with the Final Decision Concerning Comoros

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of days ago, the OTP finally announced what we all expected: that it would not reconsider its refusal to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. Dov Jacobs has already offered some thoughts on the lengthy document the OTP has filed with the Court explaining its reasoning — what the OTP nicely calls the Final Decision. I fully concur with Dov’s thoughts (except with his position on retroactive acceptance of jurisdiction), and I write here simply to add one of my own.

To begin with, I think this is the most impressive OTP brief I have ever read — especially given the complexity of the procedural issues that it addresses. It is exceptionally well written and argued. I don’t know who the author is, but she would have made an excellent analytic philosopher. Fatou Bensouda should promote her immediately.

That said, I strongly believe that the Final Decision’s understanding of when the OTP is required to investigate a situation is fundamentally flawed — and will almost certainly come back to haunt the OTP in future preliminary examinations. I have argued, as have most scholars, that situational gravity is a function of all the potential cases in a situation that would be admissible before the Court: the greater the number of prosecutable crimes and the greater their individual gravity, the more situationally grave the situation. To be sure, it is not an easy task to compare the situational gravity of different situations. But I don’t think there a practical alternative, given that the OTP can only investigate a very small percentage of the situations in which admissible crimes have been committed.

The Final Decision, however, appears to take a very different approach. Instead of deciding whether to open an investigation based on the gravity of all the potentially admissible cases in a situation, the OTP seems to believe that it is required to open an investigation as long as even one potential case within a situation would be sufficiently grave to prosecute. Consider the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

11. Although the Prosecution maintains its view that no potential case arising from this situation would be admissible before this Court—which is the only issue in dispute with the Comoros—this does not excuse any crimes which may have been perpetrated.

332. Consistent with article 53(3)(a) of the Statute and rule 108(3), and based on the above reasoning and the information available on 6 November 2014, the Prosecution hereby decides to uphold the disposition of the Report. There remains no reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, since there is no reasonable basis to conclude that any potential case arising from the situation would be of sufficient gravity to be admissible before the Court.

This approach, it is worth noting, appears to represent a retreat from the position the OTP took in its initial explanation of why it would not investigate the Comoros situation. Here is paragraph 24 of that document (emphasis mine):

Having carefully assessed the relevant considerations, the Office has concluded that the potential case(s) that would likely arise from an investigation of the flotilla incident would not be of sufficient gravity to justify further action by the Court, in light of the criteria for admissibility 8 provided in article 17(1)(d) and the guidance outlined in article 8(1) of the Statute.

It is possible, of course, that the Final Decision refers to the gravity of “any potential case” instead of “the potential case(s)” not because the OTP’s approach to situational gravity has changed, but because there is only one potential case in the Comoros situation: the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. But the difference of language is striking — and given the legal and analytic precision of the Final Decision, I find it difficult to believe that its emphasis on whether any individual case would be admissible is simply a slip of the keyboard.

I assume, therefore, that the Final Decision means what it says: the OTP believes it has to investigate any situation in which there is at least one potential case that is grave enough to be admissible. But that is a very problematic position.

To begin with, it leads to precisely the kind of unhelpful dispute we have seen in Comoros situation, where the OTP believes a specific case is not sufficiently grave to be admissible and the Pre-Trial Chamber disagrees. Both the OTP and the PTC have spent a great deal of time during their “judicial dialogue” (Dov’s apt expression) comparing the Mavi Marmara case to the Abu Garda and Banda cases. Here, for example, is how the Final Decision critiques the PTC’s insistence that the Mavi Marmara case is sufficiently grave to be admissible:

77. However, the Request does not address the basis on which the Prosecution considered that “the total number of victims of the flotilla incident reached relatively limited proportions as compared, generally, to other cases investigated by the Office”—in particular, the circumstances of the Abu Garda and Banda cases (which are, in relevant part, identical). Although the majority likewise referred to these cases, it did not consider those particular characteristics.

78. As the Report expressly states, Abu Garda likewise concerned the allegation of “a single attack involving a relatively low number of victims”—but it was “distinguishable” because of “the nature and impact of the alleged crimes”, which were committed against international peacekeeping forces. Accordingly, the attack alleged in Abu Garda differed in nature from the identified crimes aboard the Mavi Marmara. Crimes against international peacekeepers strike at the heart of the international community’s mechanisms for collective security, and thus their direct and indirect victims include not only the peacekeepers and their families, but also the large number of civilians deprived of protection more widely because of the disruption to the peacekeepers’ operations. The Request does not address this distinction. [130]

n. 130 Likewise, the recent Al Mahdi case—solely concerning attacks on property protected under article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Statute—was considered sufficiently grave to be admissible before the Court, resulting in a conviction. In the context of sentencing, the Trial Chamber stressed that the charged conduct was of “significant gravity”, among other reasons, because 1) the destroyed mausoleums were “among the most cherished buildings” in Timbuktu, an “emblematic city” which “played a crucial role in the expansion of Islam in the region” and which is “at the heart of Mali’s cultural heritage”; 2) the destroyed mausoleums were of proven significance to the inhabitants of Timbuktu not only as a matter of religious observance but also as a symbol and focus of community activity and unity; and 3) all the destroyed sites but one were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, whose destruction also directly affects “people throughout Mali and the international community.” This same reasoning is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the question of admissibility.

I don’t find the OTP’s efforts to distinguish the Mavi Marmara case from Abu Garda, Banda, and Al Mahdi particularly convincing. Its selection of factors to highlight strikes me as completely subjective and result-driven. Indeed, when faced with the PTC’s insistence that the message the Mavi Marmara attack sent to the international community — that Israel is willing to use force to maintain an illegal blockade that is causing a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza — it simply retreats to “well, we disagree, and there is nothing you can do about it”:

80. Indeed, the majority appears simply to disagree with the Prosecution’s view of the weight to be given to… the significance of any ‘message’ sent by the interception of the flotilla itself. Given the Prosecution’s understanding of the proper standard of review under article 53(3)(a), and the absence of a reasoned conclusion that the Report was in these respects incorrect or unreasonable, the Prosecution does not consider it appropriate to depart from its original determination in the Report.

My point is not that the PTC’s gravity analysis is right and the OTP’s is wrong. (Though I do think the PTC has the stronger argument.) My problem is with the OTP’s position that it must investigate any situation in which at least one case is grave enough to be admissible. Debates over case gravity are inevitable when that is the standard for opening an investigation. But they are easily avoided if the OTP takes a more holistic approach to situational gravity, comparing the gravity of different situations by examining all of the potentially admissible cases within them. Even if we assume (as I do) that the attack on the Mavi Marmara is sufficiently grave to be admissible, the overall situational gravity of the Comoros situation (which involves only one case) still pales in comparison not only to numerous other situations under preliminary examination, but even — and more importantly — to the situational gravity of the Palestine situation as a whole. As I have argued previously, the last thing the OTP should do is investigate one very small part of the much larger conflict between Israel and Palestine. If it ever takes the Palestine situation on, it needs to look at crimes committed by both sides throughout Palestinian territory.

There is, however, an even more significant problem with the Final Decision’s standard for opening an investigation: if taken seriously, it will simply overwhelm the OTP’s resources. There may not be even one admissible case in the Comoros situation (because there is only one case), but how likely is it that larger situations, which are the norm, will not contain even one case sufficiently grave to prosecute? Just think about the situations currently at Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the preliminary-examination process: Burundi, Gabon, Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine, Colombia, Guinea, and Nigeria. There may well be complementarity issues in some of those situations that counsel not opening an investigation, but it seems exceptionally likely that each contains at least one admissible case. The Final Decision’s standard would thus seem — barring complementarity concerns — to require the OTP to open a formal investigation in all eight situations. Which is, of course, practically impossible.

Nor is that all. If the existence of even one admissible case is enough to require the OTP to investigate a situation, states will have little problem using referrals (self or other) to achieve nakedly partisan ends. Palestine, for example, could simply refer a single day during Operation Protective Edge in which Israel flattened an entire neighbourhood in Gaza or destroyed a UN school sheltering displaced civilians. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the OTP to plausibly maintain that those acts are not grave enough to prosecute. So it would have to open an investigation. That makes little sense. Far better for the OTP to simply say that, however grave those specific attacks might be, the overall gravity of the gerrymandered “situation” is not sufficient to investigate in light of the gravity of other situations.

I hope I am wrong about when the OTP believes it is required to open an investigation into a situation. If so, the OTP needs to clarify its position immediately. Because the standard articulated in the Final Decision — the existence of even one case sufficiently grave to be admissible — is simply unworkable.

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