As many previous posts have commented, the International Criminal Court is founded on a principle of “complementarity.” This means that the ICC is a backup or default system of justice, complementary to national jurisdictions. The basic premise is that the ICC ordinarily will not take cases that are adjudicated in national courts.
One of the concerns expressed about the implementation of complementarity under the ICC statute is whether a state will have the prerogative of deciding which crimes to charge without running the risk that the ICC will minimize the state’s choice by prosecuting the same acts under the ICC statute. (See, e.g., Michael A. Newton, "The Complementarity Conundrum: Are We Watching Evolution or Evisceration," forthcoming in the Santa Clara Journal of International Law.) The primary question is this:
What happens if a state chooses to prosecute for an “ordinary” crime, such as murder or rape, rather than for an “international” crime, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes?Suppose, for example, that a state is prosecuting or has prosecuted an accused for multiple murders for a particular incident that also arguably was part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. Is the case inadmissible in the ICC, or could there be a prosecution in the ICC for crimes against humanity of murder?
Assuming that jurisdictional requirements are met, the issue becomes one of admissibility of the matter and, in the case of completed cases, also an issue of ne bis in idem, or double jeopardy. As set forth in Article 17 of the ICC Statute, a case is not admissible in the ICC if a state with primary jurisdiction is willing and able to proceed with the investigation and prosecution or if the accused was already tried for the conduct and a further prosecution is now barred under the ne bis in idem provision. There are exceptions, however, to the willing and able provision, and to the ne bis in idem bar, if the state prosecution was a “sham” trial aimed at shielding the accused from responsibility, or if it was an improper proceeding, lacking in independence or impartiality and inconsistent with bringing the accused to justice.
In a recent paper for a panel on the ICC and complementarity at a symposium on the future of international criminal justice at Santa Clara School of Law -- moderated by Santa Clara Law Professor and IntLawGrrl Beth Van Schaack -- I focused on the issue of cases already adjudicated in national courts and the impact of the ne bis in idem principle on complementarity.
(For an excellent treatment of complementarity and admissibility issues from the same symposium, see the article by IntLawGrrl guest/alumna Linda M. Keller, "The Practice of the International Criminal Court: Comments on 'Complementarity in Crisis,'" also forthcoming in Santa Clara's international law journal.)
The design of the ne bis in idem principle in the ICC statute is highly protective of state prosecutions and is expressly different from the statutes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, both of which permit greater control by the international tribunal than exists with the ICC. The definitions chosen for ne bis in idem in the ICC Statute foster the priority of States in initially prosecuting crimes, give states great leeway to prosecute after an ICC prosecution, and greatly limit the ability of the ICC to prosecute after a state adjudication of the facts. The application of the ne bis in idem provision is not settled, however. As detailed in my own forthcoming article arising out of the Santa Clara symposium, the ICC has yet to interpret the provision, although the Lubanga, and the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases have raised related issues that were ultimately rejected or abandoned.
A broad interpretation of ne bis in idem -- one that favors state prosecutions over ICC prosecutions -- would be more consistent with the language of the statute and the underlying principle of complementarity. How can we tell that the ICC ne bis in idem provision is designed to give great deference to state prosecutions? Ne bis in idem is commonly stated by reference to the text of Article 14(7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states:
No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.One of the most common variations in drafting is the choice of defining “offense” as “conduct” or as “crime.” This simple variation in language carries enormous consequences. “Conduct” is construed broadly, while “crime” is construed narrowly. By means of Articles 17(1)(c) and 20 of the ICC Statute, the drafters at Rome chose to bar the ICC from conducting a subsequent prosecution if the same “conduct” had already been adjudicated in a State court system.
If we apply this to our initial question of a state prosecution of murder when the charge could have been a crime against humanity, the most likely result is that the murder prosecution would preclude an ICC prosecution for a more serious charge based on the same underlying “conduct.”
The ICC provisions are in stark contrast to the ne bis in idem provisions in Article 10(2)(a) of the ICTY Statute and Article 9(2)(a) of the ICTR Statute, both of which explicitly allow subsequent prosecution in the international tribunals if the State has prosecuted only for an “ordinary” crime. Because murder would be viewed as an ordinary crime in contrast to a crime against humanity, the ICTY and ICTR could go forward with a subsequent prosecution, but the ICC would be barred from doing so. In this way, states are given significant control over whether they prosecute a case or whether the ICC prosecutes it.
This is not to say that the extensive deference to State prosecutions is necessarily the best balance between national and international prosecutions. The deferential approach will potentially preempt ICC jurisdiction in cases in which one might argue that an international prosecution based on more serious crimes would result in greater justice. Significantly for the accused, the state-protective approach of the ICC Statute may result in multiple prosecutions for the same conduct. These concerns are not inconsequential, and deserve consideration from a policy and drafting perspective. With regard, however, to a concern that the ICC will minimize or override a state’s choice of what to prosecute, the ICC ne bis in idem provisions, as presently drafted, are highly protective, rather than preemptive, both of state prerogatives and of the principle of complementarity.