Superior Orders under the Rome Statute: a Flawed Development

Individual criminal responsibility for the violation of the provisions of International Humanitarian Law is the matter of International Criminal Law. The latter, in turn, envisages different forms of responsibility for the crimes committed as well as certain grounds upon which one may be relieved of the aforementioned responsibility. Article 33 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court deals with individual responsibility in cases of superior orders or the prescription of law and states that:

1.         The fact that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been committed by a person pursuant to an order of a Government or of a superior, whether military or civilian, shall not relieve that person of criminal responsibility unless:

(a)     The person was under a legal obligation to obey orders of the Government or the superior in question;

(b)     The person did not know that the order was unlawful; and

(c)     The order was not manifestly unlawful.

2.         For the purposes of this article, orders to commit genocide or crimes against humanity are manifestly unlawful.[1]

Several interesting issues should be pointed in respect to this. First, in order to relieve one of individual criminal responsibility under Article 33 its conditions (a), (b) and (c) have to be met cumulatively. Moreover, Article 33 won’t be of much help when committing a crime of genocide or a crime against humanity pursuant to an order of the government or a superior. Thus, given that the Rome Statute currently envisages only three crimes which fall under the jurisdiction of the Court (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity), meeting the aforementioned criteria cumulatively arguably relieves a person of criminal responsibility only for the committal of war crimes.

One should bear in mind that this provision of the Rome Statute is different from those of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (the Nuremberg Tribunal), the Charter of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Charter of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda which provided for individual criminal responsibility of subordinates notwithstanding the circumstances. The decision of the ICTY on the case of Dražen Erdemović is notable in this regard. On the 16 of July 1995 Dražen Erdemović, a soldier of the 10th Sabotage Detachment, and others received an order to execute 1000-1200 men and boys who had surrendered to the members of the Bosnian Serb police or army near Srebrenica. Erdemović allegedly resisted the order, but was then told that he either shot them, or hand his gun to another, and join those to be killed. Erdemović followed the order and performed the execution. He was brought before the ICTY and found guilty notwithstanding the circumstances since the ICTY Charter did not contain provisions on the relief of criminal responsibility.[2] This was fortunately fixed in the Rome Statute, yet, one might argue that the latter has its own flaws.

Since the provisions of Resolution RC/Res.6[3] adopted at the Kampala Conference and amending the Rome Statute do not affect Article 33, one can reasonably argue that meeting its three criteria cumulatively also relieves one of criminal responsibility for the committal of the crime of aggression. The definition of the crime of aggression is set in Article 8 bis (1) of the Rome Statute:

For the purpose of this Statute, “crime of aggression” means the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations.

To narrow it down a bit in order for there to be a crime of aggression there has to be an act of aggression which constitutes a manifest violation of the UN Charter. Bearing in mind that the three criteria have to be met cumulatively a person is relieved of criminal responsibility only if the order of a superior or the government is not manifestly unlawful. If these two statements are put together, the following question arises: can an order to perform an act constituting a manifest violation of the UN Charter be not manifestly unlawful? I doubt it.

Moreover, as argued by P. Gaeta, “if the performance of an order by a superior implies the commission of a war crime, the order cannot but be considered manifestly unlawful, given the very serious nature of the conduct prohibited by the international rules on such crimes. The illegality of an order which constitutes a grave breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention (such as the order to kill, torture or threat inhumanely persons protected by the Conventions) is obvious.”[4]

Therefore, the provision of Article 33(1)(c) of the Rome Statute read in conjunction with Article 33(2) is arguably futile since it can hardly be applied to any crime at all, however, in the absence of any judicial practices in this respect it is hard to tell whether the ICC will unconditionally decline the challenges raised under it. Moreover, currently the Court primarily focuses on superiors and given that it operates in a highly charged political atmosphere and still has to assert itself within the international community the application of Article 33(1)(c) is not likely to happen within the near future.

Written by Jan Guardian


[1]       UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998, ISBN No. 92-9227-227-6, Article 33 [online][accessed 31 July 2013].

[2]       Prosecutor v. Dražen Erdemović (Sentencing Judgement), IT-96-22-Tbis, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 5 March 1998 [online][accessed 31 July 2013].

[3]       Kampala Review Conference, Resolution RC/Res. 6, 13th Plenary Meeting, June 11, 2010, I.C.C. Doc. RC/Res. 6 [online][accessed 31 July 2013].

[4]       Paola Gaeta, The Defence of Superior Orders, 10 EJIL 172 (1999), p. 185 [online][accessed 31 July 2013].

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