Do Not Touch My President

The election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as President and Deputy President of Kenya respectively brings again to the foreground the issue of immunity from prosecution. The two are currently suspects of international crimes facing charges at the International Criminal Court. Do they, by virtue of their current status, enjoy any immunity-whether functional or personal-from prosecution by the International Criminal Court? This question, especially in light of the provisions of the Rome Statute, might seem to be obviously in the negative. After all the provisions of Article 27 are patently unambiguous:

“This Statute shall apply equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity. In particular, official capacity as a Head of State or Government…shall in no case exempt a person from criminal responsibility under this Statute, nor shall it, in and of itself, constitute a ground for reduction of sentence”
“Immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person”

One must applaud the attempt by the drafters to ensure that impunity is fought on all fronts. True, criminals should not be allowed to use their positions to hide from the natural consequences of their actions. The echo of this call comes all the way from the Nuremburg Military Tribunal. Indeed even the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the Nuremburg principles by resolution thus:
“(1) any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is personally responsible and as such is liable to punishment; (2) that the act is not in violation of internal law within the host State does not exempt responsibility for it under international law; (3) the status of the defendant does not exempt him from responsibility under international law; (4) that the act was an order by the government or superior does not exempt it from responsibility under international law; (5) any person charged with a crime in violation of international law has a right to a fair trial; (6) the crimes in violation of international law are crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity; (7) collaboration in the foregoing crimes is a crime under international law” (i)

The ICC itself has also had occasion to ruminate on the question of the immunity of a serving head of state. In the Bashir case(ii) on an application for warrants of arrest against the current President of Sudan, the court stated that the “current position of Omar Al Bashir as Head of a state which is not a party to the Statute, has no effect on the Court’s jurisdiction over the present case…(since) one of the core goals of the Statute is to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole which, must not go unpunished”(iii) . Thus, President Bashir became the first sitting head of state to face criminal charges in an international court.
Whereas the court’s reading of the law in the Bashir decision seems prima facie correct there was a lost opportunity to provide further guidance on an otherwise still grey area. If a head of state is indicted, for example, what privileges is he entitled to during the trial? Surely the individual who is the personification of an independent sovereign state should not have the same treatment as a common criminal. It would make sense, for example, to allow the head of state to forego all but very necessary appearances in court in light of his/her often punishing work schedule and, more importantly, so as to ensure that the lives of the nation are not held in suspense for years as the trial proceeds. It would also seem appropriate to allow the head of state to waive, if s/he chooses, any personal appearances in court so as not to embarrass the state concerned.
I also submit that the supposed removal of the immunity of heads of states is not without exceptions. Article 98 of the Rome statute for example provides as follows:
“1. The Court may not proceed with a request for surrender or assistance which would require the requested State to act inconsistently with its obligations under international law with respect to the State or diplomatic immunity of a person or property of a third State, unless the Court can first obtain the cooperation of that
third State for the waiver of the immunity.

2. The Court may not proceed with a request for surrender which would require the requested State to act inconsistently with its obligations under international agreements pursuant to which the consent of a sending State is required to surrender a person of that State to the Court, unless the Court can first obtain the cooperation of the sending State for the giving of consent for the surrender”

If therefore, for example, the government of Sudan has a bilateral agreement with say the government of Malaysia where each country agrees not to release the other country’s citizens to the ICC then Bashir’s immunity would prevail whenever he visits Malaysia. A warrant of arrest to all and sundry, such as the one issued by the Bashir court is therefore questionable.
If the immunity of heads of states is taken away then how, pray tell, do we deal with the other treaties that provide protection to them? What of customary international law that provides that heads of states are “untouchable”? The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 for example, provides that “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity”(iv) . The rationale for this is simple: the diplomat represents the sending State. The principle of sovereign equality of States would therefore not countenance a situation where the host state arrests or charges the diplomat. Similarly, what applies for the diplomat would apply to the head of state. It would be a legal misnomer for the diplomat to be protected in order to preserve the “purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations concerning the sovereign equality of States, the maintenance of international peace and security, and the promotion of friendly relations among nations”(v) while not affording the same level of protection to the heads of state. If, as has been decided, a host state cannot arrest or charge diplomats or heads of states in the national courts (vi), they should also not be able to arrest them at all (vii). The principle of sovereign equality of states is applicable at all times. Since there is no “international police force” any State that attempts to arrest a sitting head of state would be interfering with a cardinal principle of international law. Evidently therefore “the exercise of jurisdiction of international criminal courts can have serious consequences for the sovereign equality of states and the intercourse of international relations…just like the exercise of jurisdiction by domestic courts over foreign State officials, the ICC’s exercise of jurisdiction in such cases can engender severe repercussions for the fabric of inter-state relations. The exercise of jurisdiction by, the Court will affect, and be affected by, the same considerations of State sovereignty that inform the doctrine of head of state immunity and its application before domestic courts”(viii)

Lastly the practicality of removing the immunity of a sitting head of state is in doubt. Intricate relationships among states cannot allow this. With the knowledge of the repercussions of any attempt to arrest any sitting head of state, nay any senior government official, who, pray tell, would bell the cat?
_________________________________________________________________________(i) General Assembly Resolution, Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nurnberg Tribunal 95(I), 11 December 1946.

(ii) In the Case of the Prosecutor V. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir (“Omar Al Bashir”)- Decision on the Prosecution’s Application for a Warrant of Arrest against Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, No. ICC-02/05-01/09

(iii) Ibid para. 41-42

(iv) Article 29

(v) Preamble to the Convention

(vi) Heads of States immunity from the jurisdiction of national jurisdiction has been affirmed by the ICJ in Certain Questions of Mutual Judicial Assistance in Criminal Matters (Djibouti v France). For more see Immunities of State Officials, International Crimes, and Foreign Domestic Courts by Dapo Akande and Sangeeta Shah, EJIL (2010), Vol. 21 No. 4, 815–852- http://www.ejil.org/pdfs/21/4/2115.pdf

(vii) Admittedly, in the case of Prosecutor v Charles Ghankay Taylor, Case Number SCSL-2003-01-I, Decision on Immunity from Jurisdiction, 31 May 2004 the court held that “the principle seems now established that the sovereign equality of states does not prevent a Head of State from being prosecuted before an international criminal tribunal or court.” But, since Mr Taylor was no longer serving as a head of state at the time, the considerations were different.

(viii) The Survival of Head of State Immunity at the International Criminal Court, Wardle, Phillip, Australian International Law Journal, Vol. 18

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