The International Court of Justice recently promulgated a judgment which calls into question both the relevance and function of international law. Unwittingly, it declared that Nazi Germany is entitled to impunity for acts of forced labor that it committed during World War II.
In its February 3, 2012 decision in the case of Germany vs. Italy, the court ruled that the principle of sovereign immunity from suits is a customary norm of international law that cannot be infringed unless waived by the state. This immunity subsists even if the claim against it is for violation of a peremptory norm, referred to as “jus cogens” in international law. It also ruled that state assets are also immune from execution
The case arose because of a series of Italian domestic court decisions awarding civil damages against Germany for forced labor committed during World War II. While Germany has acknowledged that it committed grave breaches of international humanitarian law during the war, it nonetheless insists that claims against it for damages should be brought pursuant to its domestic law authorizing payment of compensation to individuals for these breaches and before German courts. Unfortunately, German courts barred compensation for forced labor for individuals with the status of a Prisoner of War. This is because the Germany insists that under the Geneva Conventions, POWs may be compelled to work by the detaining power.
In a case involving Luigi Ferrini who claimed to have been forcibly deported from Italy to Germany and made to work in a munitions factory, the Italian court ruled that Germany may not invoke state immunity for the commission of an international crime which at the same time, is covered by a jus cogens prohibition. The Court then awarded Ferrini damages and sought to enforce its decision against a real property owned by Germany in Italy. Hence, Germany’s resort to the ICJ.
The ICJ upheld Germany’s claim of immunity by ruling that under customary international law, the rule remains that a state is absolutely immune from suits for acts committed by its military troops in the territory of the forum. Furthermore, it stressed that under customary law, a violation of a jus cogens norm, even if acknowledged, as it was by Germany, cannot result in waiver of state immunity. In both points, the court enumerated a long list of state practice in the form of legislation and court decisions indicating that other than for Italian and Greek judicial decisions, the principle of state immunity as derived from the principle of sovereign equality of states remains to be firmly rooted in international law.
In ruling in the manner that it did, the ICJ applied an already disregarded notion that international law is only about the application of legal rules. In fact, bulk of the Court’s opinion was devoted to an examination of what the law is, assuming perhaps that what is may be divorced from why it is law and what it seeks to accomplish. International law is law only because states accept it as such. While states may have varying reasons why they acknowledge it to be law, the fact remains that like all laws, international law forms part of normative system. It prescribes conduct deemed beneficial to all of humanity and prohibits conducts that are otherwise.
This means that in the application of rules, the Court should have considered what is more beneficial to humanity: the cold application of the principle of sovereign immunity or the primacy of protecting civilian and POWS in times of armed conflict. While it is true that sovereign equality of states is a foundational principle of the law, the same is true also of the principle that that human rights have also ceased to be purely domestic issue.
The fact that the ICJ gave primacy to the principle of sovereign immunity from suits ignores why these rules exist in the first place; that is, to protect the interests of individuals and not the interest of an artificial being that is a state. As some have noted, international law protects for instance, the environment—not because the ocean or the air should be protected as such. We do so ultimately because human beings require clean water and air.
True, the Court expressly said that its ruling does not affect the liability of state agents when they themselves commit egregious acts. But why should there be a distinction? Precisely because a state can only act only though its agent, there should be no distinction hence between suits against the state itself and against its agents.
The Court also engaged in face-saving when it said that its decision is without prejudice to the liability of the German state for the commission of an internationally wrongful act. But what use is this when victims are bereft of a remedy under domestic law? Who will authorize the award of compensation to the victims when current state practice still deny individuals a standing to bring claims under international law? Certainly, similar claims to that of Ferrini’s were rejected by the European Court of Human Rights on jurisdictional grounds.
There is clearly more merit in the lone dissenting opinion written by a former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights Judge Antonio Trindande: “The Court’s decision … seems more open and receptive to the sensitivities of States than to the victimized human beings, subjected to deportation and sent to forced labor.”