by Jennifer Trahan
[Jennifer Trahan is Associate Professor, The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS and Chair of the International Criminal Court Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association]
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties (ASP) took the historic and significant decision, by consensus, to activate, effective July 17, 2018, the ICC’s jurisdiction over its 4th crime, the crime of aggression. (The Kampala crime of aggression amendment had been “adopted” in 2010 at the Kampala Review Conference, but there was a delay mechanism such that jurisdiction did not yet “activate”, but first required 30 States Parties to ratify the amendment (35 now have), and one more decision by the ASP to activate.)
The decision made by the ASP was a step forward for international criminal law, a step forward for completing the Rome Statute as envisioned in 1998 (which already included jurisdiction over 4 crimes), a step forward for carrying on the legacy of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and a step forward in trying to create more deterrence behind UN Charter article 2(4). But, it was a step backwards in how to read the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime.
While many had hoped that at the ASP, it could be agreed to simply “activate” jurisdiction by consensus (for instance, simply reflected in a sentence in a resolution), already over the past year it appeared that would not be the case. As many readers will know, there have been two different readings of what was accomplished in Kampala.
The differences in reading pertained to which States Parties would be covered by the ICC’s crime of aggression jurisdiction after activation in the situation of State Party referral or proprio motu initiation of investigation (Rome Statute article 15 bis). (Activation also triggers the possibility of UN Security Council referrals covering the crime of aggression (article 15 ter); non-States Parties were completely exempted from the crime’s jurisdictional reach already during the Kampala negotiations (art. 15 bis, para. 5).)
One reading (let us call it the Liechtenstein/Swiss/majority reading) was that after the activation decision, for purposes of State Party referrals and proprio motu initiation, ALL States Parties could be subject to crime of aggression jurisdiction, absent their lodging an “opt out” declaration, but only also if either the aggressor or victim State Party had also actively ratified the crime of aggression amendment. The other reading (let us call it the UK/French reading), was that no State Party could be covered by the crime of aggression after activation unless it had also actively ratified the amendment. (This reading results in an extremely restrictive jurisdictional regime, because, frankly, ratifying States Parties such as Liechtenstein and Botswana are not invading each other.)
After a year of a “facilitation” process, led by Austria, to try to resolve this issue, negotiations opened during the ASP. What I am calling the Liechtenstein/Swiss/majority group proposed various draft texts that could have helped bridge the gap between the two readings, with Brazil and Austria also proposing helpful suggestions. Yet, the UK/France (at times joined by Norway, Japan, Colombia, Australia, Canada and Denmark) insisted on their view simply prevailing, and, in the end, the UK and France never moved from that position. (This narrative reflects my understanding of negotiations gleaned from discussions with representatives of States Parties, as, unfortunately, members of civil society were excluded from the “closed door” negotiations.)
The desire to achieve consensus activation (meaning any State Party could block consensus) provided any single State Party (or two States Parties, as was the case here) with enormous leverage. A vote would require 2/3rd of States Parties voting for it, and a few delegations did not stay to the close of the ASP (so the full 123 States Parties were not present towards the end of the conference). Additionally, a vote suggests a divided commitment that States Parties did not appear to want, and how the vote would turn out seemed uncertain as well.
In the end, States Parties had (for many of them) the very difficult decision to make—whether to activate the crime in an historic and important decision, if it meant accepting the extremely restrictive reading of jurisdiction given by the French/UK group. (This is quite ironic because it means that the 4 states that had conducted the Nuremberg prosecutions are either now caved out of crime of aggression jurisdiction (the US and Russia as non-States Parties) or can easily do so by not ratifying the amendment (the UK and France).) On the other hand, a decision not to accept the UK/French reading meant that the negotiations would conclude with no agreement, and no clear commitment when, where or whether to resume negotiations, and no certainty that any resumed negotiation would conclude any differently in the future.
This author believes States Parties made the right decision. It was not what many of them had wanted and thought they had negotiated in Kampala. Yet, international law often moves forward in imperfect ways (the war crimes amendment also adopted at this ASP dropped a key war crime along the way). And, really, in the end of the day, all States Parties agreed that the crime of aggression is a consensual regime—and it was only how to achieve that (basically an “opt in” or “opt out” approach).
It was a large concession, which now means, at present when the crime of aggression activates on July 17, 2018 (the activation date selected in the activating resolution, ICC-ASP/16/L.10*), it will have extremely limited jurisdictional reach. The good news is the ICC will hardly be overwhelmed with cases (for those who worried about this)—it could even take years before there is a case of aggression within its jurisdiction. The bad news of course if that if one hoped the activation of the crime could have some deterrent impact in trying to prevent aggressive uses of force, including war, that deterrent impact is now lessened. (Deterrent impact is more likely now to be created through the possibility of U.N. Security Council referral—which could cover States Parties (whether or not they ratify) and non-States Parties). In terms of increasing the jurisdictional reach for purposes of non-Security Council referrals, it is now up to the ICC, civil society and States Parties to press for additional crime of aggression ratifications.