Immunity (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
Exemption from performing duties that the law generally requires other citizens to perform, or from a penalty or burden that the law generally places upon other citizens.
SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY prevents a sovereign state or person from being subjected to suit without its consent.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the principle that a nation is immune from suit in the courts of another country. It was first recognized by U.S. courts in the case of The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 116, 3 L. Ed. 287 (1812). At first, courts espoused a theory that provided absolute immunity from the jurisdiction of a U.S. court for any act by a foreign state. But beginning in the early 1900s, courts relied on the political branches of government to define the breadth and limits of sovereign immunity.
In 1952, the U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT reacted to an increasing number of commercial transactions between the United States and foreign nations by recognizing foreign immunity only in noncommercial or public acts, and not in commercial or private acts. However, it was easily influenced by foreign diplomats who requested absolute sovereign immunity, and the application of sovereign...
(The entire section is 2585 words.)
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Immunity (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
As a general rule of international law, states, some holders of high-ranking office in a state (such as heads of state or heads of government), and diplomatic and consular agents enjoy immunity from civil suits and criminal prosecutions inaugurated in other states (but not those inaugurated in international courts and tribunals). Many treaties, such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (April 18, 1961), the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (April 24, 1963), and the New York Convention on Special Missions (December 8, 1969), guarantee this immunity. Immunities are meant to allow states and their representatives to engage in international relations as equal and independent entities. Thus, no state can be subject to legal proceedings in another state, as it would imply statuses of inferiority and superiority, or the subordination of one state to another.
A distinction is generally made between functional and personal immunities. Functional immunities cover the activities of any state official carried out in his official capacityuch as issuing passports or negotiating treaties. These activities are attributable to the state, and the individual cannot be held accountable for them, even after he leaves office. Personal immunities attach to the particular status of the holder of these immunities, such as the head of a diplomatic mission. They cover all activities carried out by the holder, but cease to apply when that particular status is concluded (with the exception, obviously, of activities covered by functional immunities).
Recent developments, in particular the establishment of international criminal tribunals and their statutory provisions on immunities, as well as the occurrence of national proceedings against incumbent or former dignitaries, have raised questions about the scope of these traditional immunities. In particular, the applicability of the principle of immunity in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes has been seriously questioned. Some questions have been answered, other have not.
Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Article IV of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) states: "Persons committing genocide . . . shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals." Article 7 of the International Law Commission's (ILC's) Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind (1996) states: "The official position of an individual who commits a crime against the peace and security of mankind, even if he acted as head of State or Government, does not relieve him of criminal responsibility or mitigate punishment." These and other authoritative sources clearly indicate that individuals committing crimes against humanity or acts of genocide are individually responsible for them. Even heads of State, when they commit, authorize, attempt, incite, or conspire to commit acts of genocide or crimes against humanity, are personally liable for their actions, their official positions notwithstanding.
But immunity from prosecution is distinct from legal obligation to obey the law, and legal responsibility and immunity are not necessarily irreconcilable. The first question therefore is whether a temporary, procedural bar of immunity applies in the case of international crimes. In its commentary on the abovementioned Draft Code, the ILC stated that Article 7 also aims to prevent an individual from invoking an official position as a circumstance conferring immunity on him, even if that individual claims that the acts constituting the crime were performed in the exercise of his functions.
Second, even if, in principle, the responsibility of dignitaries is accepted, it must be determined which jurisdiction or jurisdictions can prosecute a state or its representative. A judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of February 14, 2002 (pertaining to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) v. Belgium, whereby the DRC launched proceedings against Belgium for issuing an arrest warrant against the DRC's acting minister for foreign affairs, Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi (Mr. Yerodia), for alleged crimes constituting violations of international humanitarian law), distinguishes between international courts and the national jurisdictions of other states.
The statutes of the Nuremberg and the Tokyo tribunals that were created in the aftermath of World War II both contained provisions stating that official immunities could not bar prosecution for genocide-related and other crimes in international courts. In its Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal (the so-called "Nuremberg Principles" of 1950), the ILC stated: "The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law" (Principle III). The statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994), as well as the Special Court for Sierra Leone (2000), contain similar provisions.
The wording in Article 27 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC, 1998) is even more precise (in rejecting the principle of selective immunity), as it clearly distinguishes between criminal responsibility and immunities, and covers both functional and personal immunities:
1. 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, a member of a Government or parliament, [or] an elected representative or a government official 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. 2. Immunities or special procedure 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 may conclude that there is a lex specialis, under customary international law, to the effect that, when charged with the offense of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes by an international jurisdiction, no state official is entitled to functional or personal immunities.
For states parties to the ICC statutes of early 2004, ninety-two states have ratified or acceded to this statuterticle 27 also has an important effect on national immunities law, even that which is established by constitutional law. Read in conjunction with Article 88 (specifically, that "States Parties shall ensure that there are procedures available under their national law for all of the forms of cooperation which are specified under this Part"), Article 27 imposes an obligation on the states parties to amend national legislation, even constitutionally protected immunities of the head of state, in order to be in a position to comply with ICC orders for arrest or surrender.
In its judgment of February 14, 2002 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium), the ICJ confirmed the annulment of some immunities before international courts. The court specifically mentions "criminal proceedings before certain international criminal courts, where they have jurisdiction" as one of the circumstances in which the immunity enjoyed under international law by an incumbent or former minister of foreign affairs does not represent a bar to criminal prosecution.
One reading of the ICC statute, favored by Amnesty International and other members of the international coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to achieving full support for the ICC, holds that the rejection of official immunities with respect to acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes applies also to proceedings before national jurisdictions. This is considered to be a consequence of the principle of complementarity that is laid down in the ICC statute (in essence, that the primary role for prosecuting these international crimes remains at the national level), and of the absence of a separate provision in the statute on immunity before national courts.National proceedings against former Chilean President Augustus Pinochet have also been cited as evidence of the emergence of a new rule of international law denying immunity. Pinochet was arrested in London, on the basis of two arrest warrants issued by U.K. magistrates at the request of Spanish courts for Pinochet's alleged responsibility for the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile, and for conspiracy to commit acts of torture, the taking of hostages, and murder. The alleged crimes were committed while Pinochet held office in Chile as head of state. In its judgment of March 24, 1999, the English House of Lords, which is in effect the country's Supreme Court, held that Pinochet was not entitled to immunity for acts of torture and conspiracy to commit torture, insofar as these acts were committed after the United Kingdom's ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984). As a result, extradition proceedings were allowed to continue. The judgment was welcomed by the international human rights movement as a great step in the international fight against impunity. However, the precedent value of this judgment is subject to various interpretations. The judgment did not cover the issue of personal immunities of incumbent heads of state. Some judges
In the abovementioned Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium (February 14, 2002), the ICJ ruled, in a thirteen-to-three vote, that the issuance and circulation of the arrest warrant by the Belgian investigating judge against the minister of foreign affairs of the DRC violated international law. The court found that, after a careful examination of state practice, it had been unable to find "any form of exception to the rule according immunity from criminal jurisdiction and inviolability to incumbent ministers for foreign affairs, where they are suspected of having committed war crimes or crimes against humanity." The court also noted that immunities could be invoked in national courts of a foreign state, even when those courts exercise jurisdiction under treaties that deal with the prevention and punishment of certain serious international crimes. The court added that although jurisdictional immunity may bar prosecution for a certain period of time, it does not exonerate the person to whom it applies from criminal responsibility. Emphasizing that immunity does not amount to impunity, the ICJ identified four circumstances under which immunities do not bar criminal prosecution. In the specific context of crimes against humanity, the first two circumstances (criminal prosecution before the domestic legal system or the existence of a waiver of immunity) are highly theoretical. In addition to the abovementioned circumstance of criminal proceedings before certain international criminal courts, the court also referred to the legal standing of former ministers foreign affairs: "[A]fter a person ceases to hold the office of Minister for Foreign Affairs . . . a court of one State may try a former Minister for Foreign Affairs of another State in respect of acts committed prior or subsequent to his or her period of office, as well as in respect of acts committed during that period of office in a private capacity."
Questions That Remain
Despite the illuminations of the ICJ judgment in Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium, several issues remain unclear.
First, it is unclear as to which dignitaries enjoy immunity. The court spoke of the immunities that belong to (but not only to) "certain holders of high-ranking office in a State, such as the Head of State, Head of Government, and Minister for Foreign Affairs." In the ICJ judgment, there is no indication as to whether the same immunities apply to, for instance, a minister of defense, or of education, a state secretary of development cooperation, or a senator-for-life charged with international relations. International comity may require analogous treatment of some other dignitaries, but comity is no source of customary law and analogy is a poor basis on which to build legal rules.
Second, the nature and scope of "acts committed in a private capacity" are undetermined. The court seems to be suggestingithout elaboration or specificationhat serious international crimes can be committed either in a private capacity or in an official capacity. The postulation of such a distinction is deplorable, and seems untenable within the specific context of international crimes. It would have been preferable for the court to add, as did several judges in a joint separate opinion and as did several members of the House of Lords in deciding the Pinochet case, that serious international crimes can never be regarded as acts committed in an official capacity because they are neither normal state functions nor functions that a state alone (in contrast to an individual) can perform.
Third, it is not clear what type of activities violate the immunities in question. In Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium, the ICJ found that the issuance of an arrest warrant and its international circulation "significantly interfered with Mr. Yerodia's diplomatic activity," and as a result affected the DRC's international relations. In light of the rationale of the immunities, one might agree with those judges who found, to the contrary, that the mere launching of criminal investigationshich may include the hearing of witnessesoes not necessarily negatively affect the carrying out of of a state's international relations and, therefore, does not in itself violate international law on immunities.
Fourth, the ICJ judgment does not address the issue of how this immunities regime applies in the case of criminal prosecutions before criminal tribunals that are located in between the national and international legal orders, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Finally, the ICJ judgment addresses the immunity of state representatives who have had criminal proceedings brought against them. It does not address the immunity of a state in the instance of civil actions filed against it and its representatives for monetary damages. In the case of Al-Adsani v. the United Kingdom (November 21, 2001), heard before the European Court of Human Rights, a Kuwaiti applicant, the victim of acts of torture in Kuwait, was denied the right to initiate civil compensation proceedings against Kuwait before a UK court on the basis of the UK's domestic State Immunity Act. With a majority vote of nine-to-eight, the court found no violation of Article 6, Section 1 (declaring the right of access to court) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court argued as follows: "Notwithstanding the special character of the prohibition of torture in international law, the Court is unable to discern . . . any firm basis for concluding that, as a matter of international law, a State no longer enjoys immunity from civil suits in the courts of another State where acts of torture are alleged." The eight dissenting judges expressed the view that the prohibition of torture, as a peremptory rule of international law, should prevail over State immunity rules, which do not have the same peremptory character. In their view, the United Kingdom should have allowed the applicant to initiate a civil action against Kuwait.
SEE ALSO Amnesty; Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; Conventions Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment; International Court of Justice; International Criminal Court; Pinochet, Augusto; Prosecution; Sierra Leone Special Court; War Crimes
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