Introduction

Definitional, jurisdictional and regulatory issues surround the crime (and act) of aggression, and its status as a legal act. This post examines whether the determination of an act of aggression — which is made by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and is soon to be justiciable before the International Criminal Court (ICC) — is and will always remain a primarily political (rather than legal) act.

The UNSC has the power to declare an event an act of aggression under the UN Charter (Article 39, Chapter VII). The crime of aggression, on the other hand, will fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC under the Rome Statute in 2017, and concerns:

the planning, preparation, initiation or execution of an act of using armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.

Two competing schools of thought exist when it comes to approaching the complex task of interpreting aggression as an act capable of legal regulation. First, there are states that argue that the ICC should be the only institution with the right to exercise jurisdiction over aggression once the UNSC has determined that an act of aggression has occurred (Matthew Gillett, ‘The Anatomy of an International Crime: Aggression at the International Criminal Court’ (2013) 13 International Criminal Law Review 829). Such an approach indicates that the ICC would be in a position to only make determinations about the ‘leadership elements’ of aggression (see Report of the Special Working Group of the Crime of Aggression Doc. ICC-ASP/6/20/Add.1/Annex II). In contrast, the second school of thought argues that there are a lack of existing legal frameworks that demonstrate the contentions of the UNSC in determining and asserting the ICC’s independence and rights protection framework for the accused; after all the ICC is required to adjudicate all elements of the crime of aggression (Davis Brown, ‘Why the crime of aggression will not reduce the practice of aggression’ (2014) 51 International Politics 648). This line of thought leads to the argument that aggression is not regulated by criminal law.

This post argues that although a limited legal framework exists to regulate the crime of aggression (and within a criminal law context), there remain significant concerns. It first discusses aggression in the context of article 5(2) of the Rome Statute. It also sets out legal and policy arguments for why aggression may be considered a political rather than legal act. Finally, it articulates the ramifications of its proposed legal status.

Aggression and article 5(2)

Article 5(2) of the Rome Statute sets out the conditions under which the ICC can exercise its jurisdiction over acts of aggression:

The court shall exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression once a provision is adopted in accordance with articles 121 and 123 defining the crime and setting out the conditions under which the court shall exercise jurisdiction with respect to this crime. Such a provision shall be consistent with the relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

In his submission to the United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, Sir Franklin Berman argued that interpretation of this provision may be that

the reference to aggression in article 5 and, in particular, the last sentence of paragraph 2 of that article, which mentioned the Charter, [is] a reference to the requirement of prior determination by the Security Council that an act of aggression had occurred

This position is reiterated by Meron, (Theodor Meron, ‘Defining Aggression for the International Criminal Court’ (2001) 25 Suffolk Transnational Law Review 1), Zimmermann (Andrew Zimmermann, ‘Article 5’, in Otto Triffterer and Kai Ambor (eds), Commentary on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: Observer’s Notes, Articles by Article) and Scheffer, where Scheffer referred to the provision as opaque due to its nature not indicating whether the ICC can prosecute the crime of aggression absent a prior determination by the UNSC that an act of aggression has taken place (Cited in Carrie McDougall, ‘When Law and Reality Clash — The Imperative of Compromise in the Context of the Accumulated Evil of the Whole: Conditions for the Exercise of the International Criminal Court’s Jurisdiction over the Crime of Aggression’ (2007) 7 International Criminal Law Review 277, 280). It is argued that the provision was drafted in order to accommodate both the states that favour the crucial power held by the UNSC to determine the existence of aggression (and therefore the power to regulate its prosecution), as well as states that opposed any ‘special role’ for the UNSC in the prosecution of aggression. In this regard, The Rome Statute interlinks (or at least appears to interlink) with the UN Charter.

Exclusive authority by the UNSC — The importance of UNSC determinations

The UNSC has power to identify an act of aggression pursuant to article 39 of the Charter. The provision states that the UNSC

shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Whilst article 39 provides the legal basis for the characterisation of an act as one of aggression, as outlined below, the making of the determination itself is inherently political (McDougall above 281). In 1991, the International Law Commission provided an opinion on these political dimensions during discussions on the Draft Code of Offences against the Peace and Security of Mankind, asserting that both the crime and threat of aggression can be interpreted as ‘sui generis in that, by definition, they existed only if the Security Council characterised certain acts as such’ (See the Report of the International Law Commission on the Work of its Forty-Third Session).

On this point, Akande notes that the determination of whether a situation is a threat or breach of the peace or an act of aggression is clearly non-justiciable. It cannot be answered by ‘recourse to legal reasoning as there are no legal standards by which to reach a decision. It involves a political decision as to factual ammeters and is in no way constrained by legal considerations’ (Dapo Akande, ‘The International Court of Justice and the Security Council: Is There Room for Judicial Control of Decisions of the Political Organs of the United Nations’ (1997) 46 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 309, 338). The UNSC’s interpretative exercise requires an evaluation of facts and an ‘appraisal of the international political situation to see both whether a particular label is justified and whether the interests of international peace and security will be furthered’ (McDougall above 281).

There is obiter commentary by the International Court of Justice that supports the UNSC’s exclusive prerogative to determine aggression. In his dissenting opinion in the Lockerbie Case, Weeramantry held that:

… the determination under article 39 of the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, is one entirely within the discretion of the Council. It would appear that the Council and no other is the judge of the existence of the state of affairs which brings Chapter VII into operation. That decision is taken by the UNSC in its own judgment and in the exercise of the full discretion given to it by Article 39. Once taken, the door is opened to the various decision the Council may make under that Chapter. Thus any matter which is the subject of a valid Security Council decision under Chapter VII does not appear, prima facie, to be one with which the Court can properly deal. [page 66]

Similarly, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Kanyabashi Case made an argument that also applies to aggression, stating that:

… the Security Council has a wide margin of discretion in deciding when and where there exists a threat to international peace and security. By their very nature, however, such discretionary assessments are not justiciable since they involve the consideration of a number of social, political and circumstantial factors which cannot be weighed and balanced objectively by this Trial Chamber. (at paragraph [20])

Consequently, international criminal tribunals recognise that the determination of an act of aggression by the UNSC has a political dimension. Within this political context, the nature of article 39 determinations can also be viewed through the veto power of the UNSC’s permanent five members, which is ‘exercisable in relation to substantive questions’ that include the characterisation of acts of aggression (McDougall above 283). De Wet contends that the ‘structural bias in favour of the major powers is a clear indication that decisions in the interest of peace and security will be based exclusively on (national) political considerations’ (Erika De Wet, The Chapter VII Powers of the United Nations Security Council 134–5. See also McDougall above 283) as well as interests. Kelsen argued that the UNSC is not limited to ‘taking enforcement measures under articles 41 and 42’ as article 39 allows the UNSC to make recommendations ‘of any kind’ (Hans Kelsen, The Law of the United Nations: A Critical Analysis of Its Fundamental Problems 438. See also McDougall above 284).

Another argument of concern relates to article 103, which states that

[i]n the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.

The issue is that any Rome Statute provision granting the ICC jurisdiction to determine aggression would conflict with articles 24, which outlines the UNSC’s powers in respect of international peace and security, and 39, ‘which grant the Security Council the exclusive ability to determine the existence of acts of aggression and establish an obligation of the Member States to uphold the Security Council’s rights’ (McDougall above 285). Of further concern is where the UNSC adopts a resolution clearly identifying an act of aggression. Here, and on the basis of article 25, ‘it is claimed that a resolution determining the existence of aggression would be binding on the Member States of the United Nations and therefore all States Parties to the Rome Statute’ (McDougall above 285–6). Consequently, it is arguable that ICC judgments regarding the crime of aggression that reach an alternative conclusion to the UNSC’s resolutions would ‘create inconsistent obligations and therefore be unenforceable pursuant to article 103 of the Charter’ (McDougall above 286).

Policy considerations when determining and regulating aggression

If the determination of aggression is a political rather than legal act, then attention must be paid to the policy considerations driving that determination. These must be viewed through a realpolitik lens (McDougall) since the permanent five members of the UNSC and their allies view UNSC determination as the ‘conditio sine qua non for the inclusion of the crime of aggression’ (Hermann Von Hebel and Darryl Robinson, ‘Crimes within the Jurisdiction of the Court’ in Roy S Lee (ed) The International Criminal Court: The Making of the Rome Statute 84). Scheffer also places a degree of an emphasis on realpolitik by viewing aggression as ‘one crime that other nations may seek to charge our deployed military with, regardless of the merits.’ He views it as a crime that ‘invites political manipulation to serve the interests of whoever regards any projection of military power to be aggressive’ (Quoted in McDougall above 307. See also D D N Nsereko, ‘Bringing Aggressors to Justice: From Nuremberg to Rome’ (2005) 2 University of Botswana Law Journal 5).

There are other interpretations of how the permanent five members of the UNSC can ensure that it possesses the crucial prerogative to determine the occurrence of aggression. First, they desire the ability to protect their leaders from ICC prosecution (regardless of the merits of the legal case). Secondly, they will go above and beyond to protect this privileged status within the international arena ‘in the context of increasing debate about the need for Security Council reform’ (McDougall above 308). Thirdly, they are concerned with the ICC having jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, with their position being ‘premised on a belief that jurisdiction could be a sticking point, ultimately leading to a breakdown in negotiations’ (McDougall above 308). Such politics may see the crime of aggression undermined by the UNSC. The UNSC’s actions concerning aggression are evidence of ‘the legality of the State act element of the crime’; that is, actions leading to a less hostile and more cooperative relationship that provides for ‘resolutions vis-à-vis allegedly aggressive acts’ being drafted by the UNSC and considering future prosecutions (McDougall, 308).

Other policy arguments have been put forward demonstrating that aggression is more a political act:

  1. If the ICC has the right to determine the existence or occurrence of aggression, it undermines the UNSC since it can make the determination in situations where the UNSC failed to make an article 39 determination or taking enforcement measures under Chapter VII; (McDougall above 309. See also Report of the Informal Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Special Working Group on the Crime of Aggression, at paragraph [61]);
  2. In a situation where the ICC determines the existence of aggression, the UNSC loses its ability to negotiation peaceful settlement of conflicts by offering amnesty; (McDougall above 309. See also Allegra Carroll Carpenter, ‘The International Criminal Court and the Crime of Aggression’ (1995) 64 Nordic Journal of International Law 223);
  3. ‘the ICC is not equipped to consider matters that may lie at the heart of allegations of aggression such as maritime boundaries, the scope of legitimate self-defence under article 51, and the status of self-help remedies under international law’ (McDougall above 309); and
  4. The ICC only possesses jurisdiction over natural persons and not states, so there would be implications for the rights of States (McDougall above 309. See also James Nicholas Boeving, ‘Aggression, International Law and the ICC: An Argument for the Withdrawal of Aggression from the Rome Statute’ (2004) 43 Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 557).

Conclusion

This piece has laid bare the political context of a determination of an act of aggression. Determination is a political rather than legal act, in part due to ineffective legal mechanisms in the UN Charter. However, it is also due to the considerations of great powers that wish to protect their privileged status in the international arena. The legal regulation of aggression by the ICC remains hostage to the political decisions of the UNSC, and whilst from 2017 the ICC will have jurisdiction to prosecute the crime, its ability to do so will rest on political decisions in New York rather than evidence tendered in The Hague.

Sophocles Kitharidis is a public international law adviser and consultant to the International Affairs Division of the Thai Ministry of Justice. He is the former Vice President of the International Law Association (Victoria) and he holds a Master of Laws in Public International Law from the University of Melbourne.