By Dov Jacobs [cross posted on Spreading the Jam]
In January 2014, a contempt judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) confirmed an indictment for contempt proceedings which included a legal person, a first for an international criminal tribunal. At the time, I raised some doubts about the reasoning of the judge, who applied a teleological reasoning that essentially allowed him to create law based on his own interpretative preferences. I also did not find convincing the idea that the interpretation of the term “person” for the purposes of contempt proceedings could be different than the interpretation of the same term in article 2 of the Statute of the Tribunal when it came to personal jurisdiction of the tribunal generally.
In July 2014, another contempt judge reversed the first ruling, considering that the term person should be interpreted narrowly in light of the principle of legality and could not include legal persons.
Last week, an Appeals Panel of the STL reversed this latter decision, held, by majority, that legal entities could be covered by contempt proceedings and, as a consequence, reinstated the proceedings against a media company. This decision is very interesting, and problematic, in the way it approaches the question of both inherent jurisdiction and general rules of interpretation and has just entered my top 10 worst argued decisions in ICL. It might even enter my top 3, along with the SCSL amnesty decision and the ICC Malawi decision on immunities.
It would take up too much space here to comment on the decision extensively, but I just want to highlight how the Appeals Panel has found the perfect Molotov cocktail to kill the principle of legality: the “spirit” of the statute combined with inherent jurisdiction.
- The Spirit of the Statute
First of all, the decision seriously over-relies on what is called the “spirit” of the Statute as a source of interpretation, which, according to the judges, allows for a more “liberal” interpretation of the Rules (para. 27). This leads the judges to blame the contempt judge for interpreting the term “person” in accordance with the letter of the Statute rather than its spirit (!!!). The problem with that is that I don’t know what the “spirit” of the statute is. Trusting judges in relation to this spirit is like trusting the weird looking guy in the tent at the town fair that he can contact the spirit of your grandmother: he basically gets to tell you what he wants…
For the judges of the Appeals Panel, the spirit of the statute, in a nutshell, is the “fight against impunity” for those who obstruct the course of justice, which allows for a teleological interpretation that includes legal entities. Once they have decided this, the judges look for anything under international law that would not allow them to interpret person in that way… At this point, it’s not even teleological interpretation anymore, it’s backwards reasoning in its purest form!
The Appeals Chamber makes an incredibly broad assessment of international and domestic pronouncements on corporate liability (in general, not necessarily for contempt!) to conclude that nothing prevents the judges from interpreting “person” in a broad way (para. 60).
Even more amazing, the STL goes through the whole history of ICL where no legal entity was ever prosecuted for contempt or otherwise, but finds it unpersuasive, concluding that section with the extraordinary vague statement that “corporate criminal liability is on the verge of attaining, at the very least, the status of a general principle of law applicable under international law” (para. 67).
“On the verge of attaining”? What a marvelous new source of law. Following the progressive view of the Appeals Panel, I suggest that Article 38(1) of the ICJ Statute now read as follows:
1. The Court, whose function is to decide in accordance with international law such disputes as are submitted to it, shall apply:
a. international conventions, whether general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognized by the contesting states;
b. international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law;
c. the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations;
e. Any norm on the verge of attaining the formal status of any of the above
- The inherent jurisdiction of the Court
Inherent jurisdiction has always been a problematic issue, useful for creative judges over the years. But surely there has to be a limit to it. The problem is that the way the Appeals Panel uses it makes it extraordinarily large. There are a number of pronouncements in the decision on the (lack of) scope of the inherent jurisdiction of the tribunal, but this one wins the prize for honesty:
When operating within the realm of our inherent power, our jurisdiction remains undefined, only to be determined upon the crystallization of circumstances that call for a judicial pronouncement
In other words, we don’t know what our jurisdiction is, you don’t know what our jurisdiction is, but don’t worry and trust us: we’ll tell you when we get there. This cannot be how jurisdiction (inherent or otherwise) should work, especially in the current case of contempt (i.e, criminal) proceedings.
- The end of the principle of legality
The problem with everything I have described so far is that we are here dealing with criminal charges, not a innocuous rule of procedure relating to the extension of the number of pages in a brief. Inherent jurisdiction cannot be used to trump the principles that should apply in criminal law matters, notably the principle of legality and its corresponding rules of interpretation: strict interpretation and in dubio pro reo. In that respect, someone should have pointed the judges to Article 22 of the Rome Statute.
In light of this, as pointed out by the dissenting judge, both human rights law and general principles of ICL should have led the judges to consider these basic principles in interpreting the term “person” in the RPE.
- Some concluding thoughts
First, a logical point: as I pointed out in my previous post on this, for me the interpretation of term “person” in the RPE should necessarily mirror the interpretation of the term “person” in the Statute. If the STL cannot prosecute legal entities for killing Hariri, it cannot prosecute them for contempt. If not, as I said in my previous post and as picked up by the dissenting judge (who forgot to quote me…), the “spirit” of the statute would be that legal entities should not commit the horrendous and humanity-offending crime of publishing a list of witness, but can commit murder, bodily harm and terrorism without being bothered…
Second, a legal reasoning point: as with the first contempt judge who accepted the indictment for legal persons, the Appeals Panel essentially give us reasons why corporate entities ought to be held responsible for contempt. These might be valid reasons, but it’s not their job.
Third, an argumentation point: the judges refer in an amazingly broad way to the evil that corporate entities can wrought upon the world. And this is just to extend contempt jurisdiction! It seems like overkill to me. What will the first international judge to prosecute a company for genocide be able to say?
Fourth, and finally, an endless point of frustration: the drafters of the STL Statute, in their infinite (lack of) wisdom, still thought it was a good idea to let judges write their own RPE. As a result, the RPE are written by the judges, can be changed by the judges as they please, and then get interpreted by the judges. In this context, it is somewhat farcical to see them pretend to find the higher “spirit” of the Statute, fill 30 pages of analysis of domestic legislation and international pronouncements on the responsibility of legal entities and provide general moral musings on corporate liability in order to divine the true meaning of the word “person”. But, judges wrote the RPE! Adding up pages of argumentation will not bring us any closer to telling us what they were thinking when they drafted the rules on contempt in the first place and answer this ultimately very simple question which seems to have been ignored in the entirety of these proceedings: if they thought that corporate liability for contempt was so important, to the point of it verging on attaining a legal status, why did they not include it, just to make everyone life easier down the road?
In any case, I’m not sure things are over yet. It is now 3-2 for judges who want to extend contempt to legal persons. Not a large consensus. Let’s see what happens next…