The ICC’s Principle of Complementarity and Domestic Prosecutions
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.
Before a matter can be fully pursued by the International Criminal Court, the ICC Prosecutor must first in the course of a preliminary examination determine, among other jurisdictional requirements, whether national authorities are actively pursuing a case of potential concern to the ICC. This is because the principle of complementarity, set forth in the Preamble of the Rome Statute and given specificity in Article 17 of the Rome Statute, debars the ICC from pursuing possible crimes within its subject matter jurisdiction if a State that can assert jurisdiction over the matter is doing so.
Article 19 of the Rome Statute provides additional force to the complementarity principle. It states that “[t]he Court shall satisfy itself that it has jurisdiction in any case brought before it” and that “[t]he Court may, on its own motion, determine the admissibility of a case in accordance with Article 17.” Article 19 also allows certain individuals and States to challenge the admissibility of a case.
In one of its first cases, the ICC prosecuted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the leader of a group pursuing violent opposition to the government of the Congo – despite the fact that the Congo was pursuing charges against him for genocide and crimes against humanity. Because these charges did not specifically include the crime of enlisting children under age 15 to participate in hostilities (a crime within ICC’s subject matter jurisdiction), the ICC determined that it could pursue that charge against Lubanga, without violating the principle of complementarity. ICC prosecution of Lubanga on this charge resulted in 2012 in the first conviction achieved by the ICC.
In an October 2015 report, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda needed to address the complementarity issue when requesting authority from a Pre-Trial Chamber to open an investigation into 2008 conflict in the South Ossetia region of Georgia. As written earlier, this conflict includes possible crimes committed by South Ossetian forces rebelling against Georgia and by Georgian forces in response, and – potentially – by Russian forces that intervened in support of the rebels.
In August 2008, Prosecutor Bensouda’s predecessor opened a preliminary examination of this matter. ICC Protocol regarding preliminary examinations requires the Prosecutor to first determine whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within ICC jurisdiction have been committed. The OTP recently made an affirmative determination regarding the Georgian situation prior to 2015. In her October 2015 Request for Authorization, Prosecutor Bensouda mentions that the seven-year delay in presenting her request was caused by the need, pursuant to Article 17’s complementarity requirement, to monitor efforts by national authorities in Georgia and Russia undertaking investigations of crimes of concern to the ICC.
The Prosecutor further states that Russia’s investigations appear to be proceeding. However, although Georgia had been engaging in investigations since 2008, Georgian officials notified her Office in March of this year that, because of several difficulties, Georgia was discontinuing its investigations. Because of this discontinuance, the Prosecutor concludes that there is at this time no complementarity objection that would defeat her request to open an investigation into the Georgian situation.
An ICC Pre-Trial Chamber must now decide whether to authorize the Prosecutor to open an investigation. The Trial Chamber will determine, among other jurisdictional issues, whether an investigation comports with the principle of complementarity. As noted above, even should the Chamber grant the Prosecutor’s request, challenges to admissibility may be raised at later stages.