POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
On April 8, 2015, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda issued a statement responding to inquiries her Office has received regarding the widely publicized violence attributed to armed forces acting on behalf of the military and political organization known as ISIS. She noted that such violence is reported to include
mass executions, sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, torture, mutilation, enlistment and forced recruitment of children and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, not to mention the wanton destruction of cultural property.
The International Criminal Court is the only standing international criminal court available to investigate and prosecute crimes of an international character (such as those attributed to ISIS) when such crimes are not investigated and prosecuted by national courts. However, as a treaty-based institution, ICC jurisdiction is limited by rules consented to by State Parties relating to the alleged crimes at issue (subject matter jurisdiction) and to territorial and other requirements.
On August 15, 2014, the U.N. Security Council, acting under its Chapter VII powers took measures with respect to international peace and security and adopted S/RES/2170 (2014), condemning ISIS and other groups “for ongoing and multiple criminal terrorist acts aimed at causing the deaths of civilians and other victims, destruction of property and of cultural and religious sites, and greatly undermining stability.” Res. 2170 calls on U.N. Member States to take measures to interdict the flow of funding and recruits to ISIS. The Security Council has not as yet, however, referred the matter of ISIS-related violence to the ICC, as it could do under Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute.
The crimes allegedly committed by ISIS are of a scale and nature that would likely meet the ICC subject matter jurisdiction requirements – at least for initiating a preliminary investigation by the Prosecutor. However, that by itself is not sufficient to allow the Prosecutor, acting on her own initiative, to pursue an investigation. In the absence of a Security Council referral, either territorial jurisdiction (the alleged crimes were committed on the territory of a State Party) or personal jurisdiction (the alleged crimes were committed by a national(s) of a State Party) would need to be met.
The crimes alleged against ISIS were reported to be committed on the territory of Syria and Iraq, neither of which is an ICC State Party. Either country could nevertheless lodge an Article 12(3) declaration allowing the ICC to investigate, but at this point, neither has done so. Therefore, territorial jurisdiction is currently lacking.
As to the other alternative, the Prosecutor stated that she has information that “significant numbers” of ISIS fighters are nationals of ICC State Parties, including Tunisia, Jordan, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia. She noted that some of these individuals may have committed crimes within the ICC’s subject matter jurisdiction. She noted also, however, that the information available to her Office indicates that the leadership of ISIS is composed primarily of nationals of the non-Party States of Iraq and Syria. Accordingly, given the OTP’s policy to focus on those most responsible for the commission of mass crimes, the prospect of exercising personal jurisdiction over any nationals of State Parties “appears limited” and “the jurisdictional basis for opening a preliminary examination into this situation is too narrow at this stage.”
Noting that “ISIS continues to spread terror on a massive scale in the territories it occupies,” the Prosecutor stated that she “remain[s] profoundly concerned by this situation” and that she will continue efforts, in consultation with relevant States, to gather further information. She emphasized the international community’s “collective duty … to respond to the plight of victims whose rights and dignity have been violated.”