“To Wash One’s Hands”: Challenges to International Justice in a Covid-19 Era

Stephanie Miller, University of St. Andrews, UK

A former research intern at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Stephanie is currently studying for an MLitt in International Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. She previously earned her Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

Abstract

Since the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020, the ramifications of social distancing, quarantine, and other lockdown measures have been felt across the globe. The international human rights regime in particular has seen the detrimental consequences of limited judicial operations: increased violations compounded by the limited capacity of advocacy efforts have led to general impunity. This article assesses the state of affairs within the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court since the onset of the pandemic. It also highlights challenges for addressing abuses and conducting investigations and legal proceedings. Informed by public health guidelines and current attitudes towards justice and advocacy, it offers up considerations for future practice.

Introduction

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, the international community faces unprecedented challenges to global justice. Exacerbated by a current climate “of global strengthening of authoritarianism and weakening of multilateralism, human rights and the rule of law” (Šimonović, 2020, p. 4), some states have utilized strictly mandated public health measures to suppress vulnerable populations, consolidate their power, and commit unspeakable acts of atrocity (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020).

In the midst of this crisis, the international justice mechanisms designed to combat such impunity are seemingly at a standstill. Caught between their mandates and the need to stop the virus, the courts can only offer a limited range of responses. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) grapples with questions of jurisdiction while using videoconferencing to handle procedural issues (ICJ, 2020, p. 1). The International Criminal Court (ICC) must juggle war crimes investigations with political and procedural obstacles (Mansour, 2020) while also considering requests for the prosecution of individual world leaders and the World Health Organization (WHO) for alleged international crimes committed under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic (Canadian Institute for International Law Expertise, 2020).

Acknowledging the unique circumstances these mechanisms must now confront, this article poses the question: “What challenges does Covid-19 present to international justice?” It firstly seeks to provide a general assessment of the state of affairs within both the ICJ and the ICC since the onset of the pandemic. Secondly, this article details three broad aspects of international justice that have been impacted by the global pandemic and their relationship with court activities. Finally, this article draws on observations from key figures in the justice sector to propose considerations for the future. It ultimately asserts that in failing to adequately deal with the rising challenges posed by the pandemic itself and those who would seek to take advantage of it, the international community also fails in its responsibility to protect. While the continual failure of states to uphold this responsibility ensures that justice still remains elusive for many, the international court system has remained committed to responsibility, accountability, and timely management to the midst of the global health crisis.

Covid in the Courts: Assessing ICJ and ICC Action

Guidance and briefing notes from the ICJ and ICC offer insight into the priorities of each of these courts as the pandemic continues to unfold. The ICC Presidency’s “Guidelines for the Judiciary Concerning the Holding of Court Hearings during the COVID-19 Pandemic” centers around health and safety measures, limiting the capacity to conduct hearings to one hearing per day and closing all hearings to the general public (ICC, 2020b). While public statements reassuring the public of continued operations remain elusive, a review of ongoing activities reveal that the court has since been very active throughout the pandemic. For example, the trial in the case Prosecutor v. Al Hassan opened before Trial Chamber X of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Timbuktu (Mali) on July 14, 2020, less than one month after the release of the ICC’s Guidelines (ICC, 2020a). The ICC previously managed the surrender, custody transfer, and initial appearance of alleged leader of the Sudanese “Janjaweed” militia leader Ali Kushayb in June (ICC, 2020c). It also began adjusting operational engagement so that its Trust Fund for Victims continued to provide service delivery to stakeholders (ICC, 2020d).

Outside of conducting its usual activities, the ICJ has been relatively quiet on how it is internally handling the pandemic. Its document “The Court adopts measures to ensure the continued fulfilment of its mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic” briefly outlines how the Court will continue vital operations despite the containment measures, citing the use of videoconferencing to handle procedural issues (ICJ, 2020). Nonetheless, the Court may yet play an important role in establishing accountability for the global health crisis. For instance, Alexander (2020) states that “the views of the world community are that China has not complied with the WHO’s International Health Regulations… This being the case, one could argue that China breached the human rights of its citizens.” Noting the Articles 6 and 7 of the International Health Regulations provide for timely, accurate, and sufficiently detailed public health information and information sharing respectively, Alexander goes on to argue that states looking to hold China accountable for pandemic-related crimes could invoke breaches of Articles 6 and 7 of the WHO’s International Health Regulations as a basis for establishing the ICJ’s jurisdiction.

In addition to this, De Herdt (2020) points out that the court may give an advisory opinion under Article 65 of the ICJ Statute, the purpose being to “offer legal advice to the organs and institutions requesting the opinion.” An advisory opinion from the ICJ would carry a sizeable deal of legal weight and moral authority in respect to the subject at hand, a move certainly more likely than any official action on the part of the court or the international community where China is concerned.

All in all, it appears that the international courts have remained active throughout the pandemic. However, emerging gray areas regarding justice and accountability within pandemic responses ensure that all is not business as usual. The rise of human rights abuses by states in recent months has called into question the general role of international criminal justice in the prevention of and response to public health emergencies. Guariglia (2020) asserts that despite the lack of a direct connection between international crimes and epidemics, “it can help isolate the actors behind the crimes, generate awareness of their actions and their potential consequences, and galvanize efforts to counter them.” Guariglia continues on to contemplate exploring the applicability of different modes of responsibility to authorities who deliberately fail to take necessary steps to contain the coronavirus. He notes that “it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the international criminal justice system be asked to hold to account those who use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to commit or perpetuate crimes against humanity or war crimes.”

In this vein, the ability of the ICJ and ICC to hold states accountable for such abuses is limited. While Chinese human rights abuses remain a question for ICJ jurisdiction, Ackerman (2020) says that similar complaints to the ICC will also likely go untouched, noting its role as a court for only the most egregious crimes. Though the Bolsonaro administration’s crimes against healthcare professionals in Brazil is most certainly a human rights issue (Al Jazeera, 2020), Ackerman points out that it does not meet the threshold for a crime against humanity and as such “will disappear into thin air at the Prosecutor’s office” (2020: 4). Ackerman ultimately asserts that bringing individual perpetrators to court for Covid-19 related human rights violations could devalue the ICC’s mandate in the eyes of the public. To be effective, he argues, civil society and international actors ought to utilize human rights law’s concern for the protection of individuals from the acts and omissions of States. Pressuring abusive regimes not only magnifies the issues but also expedites it to the court of public opinion, where humanitarian action is faster than a legal battle. In this sense, Guariglia’s considerations for holding perpetrators accountable for Covid-19 related abuses are more aspirational than particularly realistic.

Challenges

In May 2020, TRIAL International released a report identifying three aspects of international justice that have been affected by the global pandemic: an increase of human rights violations, crimes reporting and investigations, and the conduct of legal proceedings (TRIAL International, 2020a, pp. 1-11). While by no means exhaustive, the report gives a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing both states and international organizations as they wage a two-front war on the Covid-19 pandemic and those who would utilize global health measures to commit atrocities. For example, security forces continue to use excessive force against civilians in Nepal and the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) while enforcing quarantine lockdowns. Kasozi et al. (2020) observe that expectations of robust yet flexible pandemic control strategies have led to excessive use of force by police and armed forces in Kenya and South Africa. In doing so, they argue, government authorities contribute not only to serious human rights violations but also panic and anxiety amongst local populations. As with most state-sponsored atrocities, continued abuses of power and subsequent breakdowns in communal trust only perpetuate further violence.

With no end in sight for the Covid-19 pandemic, state abuses and violent communal responses will only perpetuate themselves unless intervention, governmental, local, or otherwise, takes place. UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee warned that the Burmese military’s “significant” role in pandemic response has led to increased targeting of the Rohingya people (CNN, 2020). The military and its civilian government counterpart continue to target Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, Myanmar, where a genocide against the Rohingya Muslim population began over three years ago (Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and United Nations, 2018). Abuses against the Rohingya minority and the general Burmese population have received attention since the pandemic began, with Human Rights Watch calling out excessive sentencing for Covid-19-related infractions (Human Rights Watch, 2020) and NPR reporting on restored internet access to Rakhine and Chin States (NPR, 2020). Nonetheless, with the genocide still ongoing and Covid-19’s disruption of ICC and ICJ operations, current arbitrations will be difficult to progress due to safety concerns and public health restrictions (ICC, 2020b).

Documentation of war crimes in the eastern DRC has also significantly reduced since the onset of the pandemic, mostly due to limited access to crime scenes. Because evidence collection is extremely time-sensitive, failure to act accordingly can result in the deterioration or disappearance of physical evidence and witness statements. This poses negative implications not only for investigations but also future legal proceedings. As noted by Labuda (2019), the International Criminal Court already has a severe “evidence problem,” as demonstrated by recurring system of evidence and oversight failures in Prosecutor v. Kenyatta and Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé (Labuda, 2019). Pandemic-related issues with crime scene access and witness availability will only serve to exacerbate pre-existing conditions within the international justice system and jeopardize ongoing cases. This may be especially pertinent to the ICC’s ongoing war crimes inquiry in Afghanistan (ICC, 2019). Greenlit in March, the investigation already faces backlash of the United Stated government (Burke-White, 2020) and will continue to stall evidence collection as the pandemic devastates the country and limits mobility (World Bank, 2020).

In addition to this, TRIAL International points out that human rights advocacy and mobilization has “drastically slowed” since the onset of the pandemic (TRIAL International, 2020a). While combatting Covid-19 remains at the forefront of international attention, abuse monitoring and interventions have fallen to the wayside. Though the Human Rights Council condemned the Burundian government’s closure of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2020, it is unlikely that cases of extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and arrests, forced expropriations of property, and arbitrary detentions will be addressed while the pandemic is still ongoing (TRIAL International, 2020b). With international and regional judicial bodies operating at minimal capacity, much of the responsibility for reporting and action has fallen to local advocacy groups whose resources are already spread thin by the pandemic. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon not only reinforces the international community’s failure to exercise its responsibility to protect but also contributes to an overall loss of visibility that puts victims at risk and encourages perpetrators to commit further abuse.

Moving Forward

Given the limited capacity and overall challenges facing the international courts, options for justice for human rights violations in an era of Covid-19 may seem slim. However, with conscious considerations and adjustments for practice, reinforcing responsibility and achieving accountability is still within reach.

Despite Ackerman’s (2020) observations as to the feasibility of pursuing world leaders for human rights violations in international court, there is still a role for the ICJ and ICC to play in the crisis. As previously mentioned by De Herdt (2020), the ICJ’s ability to issue an advisory opinion upon request would bring much needed legal and moral authority while also contributing to the development and interpretation of international law. While the ICJ should be wary of the implications of issuing premature advisory opinion during this unprecedented time, this would help to close the gap regarding acceptable legal action about accountability for violations committed in the context of the pandemic. As far as the role of the ICC goes, the court’s continued commitment to maintaining a vital presence in communities affected by international crimes illustrates that building communal resilience remains a priority.

Reporting and conducting investigations while following pandemic health regulations will remain difficult for the foreseeable future. Social distancing measures and foreign travel restrictions will most likely make evidence collection challenging. However, Braga da Silva (2020, p. 1) offers a potential solution in third party investigations: “Evidence collected by third-party investigators will likely face challenges of admissibility in being introduced into trial. Those challenges could, however, be overcome if third-party investigations are regulated within the legal framework of the ICC”. While third parties would still have to adhere to public health protocol, with proper regulation and oversight third party investigators can preserve time-sensitive evidence needed for prosecution. While the potential for acquittals due to pandemic-related evidence loss remains to be seen, the very implication is enough to warrant a closer look at adapting current practices for the times.

In this same vein, both courts have already seen several changes in how legal proceedings are conducted during the pandemic. Barring public access and instituting necessary precautions are all positive steps towards continuing court operations under Covid-19 restrictions. Though limiting the number of hearings conducted each day certainly slows down due process (Crawford, 2020), it does not necessarily hinder it. Despite alterations to day-to-day procedure, all signs point towards the fact that it is still very much business as usual. Moving forward, each court should continue to be mindful of public health restrictions while also ensuring that justice is served and rights are not infringed upon.

Conclusion

In his statement on behalf of the International Center for Transitional Justice, Fernando Travesí (2020) writes: “The common expression “to wash one’s hands of something,” usually means to absolve oneself of responsibility for something. In the current global [health] crisis, the meaning seems to have been turned on its head. In washing our hands today, we are accepting, embracing our responsibility for others wherever they are. As we gaze upon the road ahead, may we similarly embrace our responsibility for the most vulnerable and for all victims of human rights violations all over the world.”

While the rise of human rights violations in the midst of the pandemic may appear to illustrate how states have washed their hands of their responsibility to protect, the same cannot be said for the international justice system. Though they face immense challenges to operation and procedure, many unprecedented, the ICJ and ICC remain open and active. Their capacity may be limited for now, but they have not forgotten their mandates to see justice and accountability for egregious crimes; investigations continue, and trials commence even as these courts grapple with the uncertain. How to investigate and try world leaders and other international actors for crimes committed during the pandemic? What is preferable, prosecution or advisory opinion? What is the role, if any, of the courts in the accountability process? These are the questions that must be solved.

What ultimate form international justice in the Covid-19 pandemic may take is still to be determined. In the meantime, civil society and the international community must remain vigilant. Despite these unprecedented circumstances, the international community is still responsible for bringing mass atrocity crimes to heel. Pandemic or not, failure to stop the most vulnerable cases from slipping through the cracks is a failure in the responsibility to protect. As Guariglia (2020) notes, “we need a global response. And global responses imply the international rule of law, global governance and accountability dimensions.” Supported by civil society, governance institutions, and international actors, that response must put human rights values at its core in order to be genuine and effective.

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