In keeping with Christmas spirit, here’s my next post on the Genocide Convention.
Can a state be responsible for genocide? What does that even mean? Aren’t international crimes, in the sage words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, committed by men, not by abstract entities? Can a state even possess genocidal intent, a basic requirement for the crime of genocide?
A full answer to this question requires revisiting many old debates, particularly those during the drafting of the Genocide Convention and on then Draft Article 19 on state crimes of the International Law Commission’s project on state responsibility, that was removed from the final ILC Articles.
If there is one thing is made clear from an examination of the Convention’s travaux, as well as state practice, that is that states have excluded any form of state criminal responsibility for the crime of genocide or any other international crime. That does not mean, however, that no state responsibility exists. In my EJIL article on state responsibility for genocide, I’ve argued that the attribution model developed by the ILC, coupled with the fundamental distinction between primary and secondary rules of state responsibility, provides a simple answer to the conundrum of state responsibility for international crimes. If an individual commits an international crime such as genocide, and if the acts of this individual are attributable to a state, pursuant to the generally applicable secondary rules of attribution (if, for example, the individual is a state organ), than the state is responsible for the crime committed by that individual as an internationally wrongful act.
This responsibility is again not criminal, but the regular state responsibility recognized in international law, that carries with it obligations of cessation and reparation. It rests on a primary obligation of states not to have individuals whose acts are attributable to them to commit international crimes. Genocide is thus at the same time both an international crime, for which individuals are criminally responsible, and an internationally wrongful act, for which states to which the acts are attributable bear their own responsibility. That does not mean there is a ‘tort’ of genocide or ‘civil’ genocide in international law – genocide still, at all times, remains an international crime, and its elements must be proven to the exacting standards demanded by the relevant body of primary rules. Thus, for example, though a state – an abstract entity – cannot have genocidal intent, such intent of the individuals whose acts are being attributed to the state must be conclusively established.
The next question is whether this type of responsibility, that in my view undoubtedly exists in customary international law, also exists within the (jurisdictional) confines of the Genocide Convention. The ICJ gave an answer to this question in the Bosnian Genocide case.
Both at the preliminary objections and at the merits stage of the case the FRY/Serbia disputed the existence of a separate obligation of a state under the Convention not to commit genocide, asserting that the Convention was a classical international criminal law treaty, dealing with crimes committed by individuals, not states. All the Convention does is to require states parties to criminalize in their domestic law the crimes that it defines, and then prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. Though Article IX of the Convention confers jurisdiction upon the Court to resolve disputes between contracting states ‘relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or for any of the other acts enumerated in article III’, this was, in Serbia’s argument, merely a compromisory clause which did not create substantive rights and obligations.
The Court disagreed. It held that ‘Article I [of the Convention], in particular its undertaking to prevent, creates obligations distinct from those which appear in the subsequent Articles [of the Convention]’ so that the ‘the Contracting Parties have a direct obligation to prevent genocide.’ Moreover, according to the Court, even though
Article [I] does not expressis verbis require States to refrain from themselves committing genocide … [i]t would be paradoxical if States were thus under an obligation to prevent, so far as within their power, commission of genocide by persons over whom they have a certain influence, but were not forbidden to commit such acts through their own organs, or persons over whom they have such firm control that their conduct is attributable to the State concerned under international law. In short, the obligation to prevent genocide necessarily implies the prohibition of the commission of genocide.
(Genocide judgment, paras. 162, 165 & 166)
Though Serbia was on the facts not found responsible for the commission of genocide in Bosnia, the Court’s judgment affirmed the attribution model developed by the ILC and the distinction between primary and secondary rules. States can thus be brought before the ICJ under Article IX of the Convention not merely for failing to criminalize or prosecute genocide, but also for committing it through their organs or failing to prevent it.
In my next post I will deal with the territorial scope of state obligations under the Convention.