A Comparatist View on Doctrinal Diversity in International Criminal Law

Professor Neha Jain is an Associate Professor of Law and a McKnight Land-Grant Professor (2016-18) at the University of Minnesota Law School. Her scholarship focuses on public international law, criminal law, and comparative law.

In their provocative article on The Ahistoricism of Legal Pluralism in International Criminal Law, James Stewart and Asad Kiyani challenge the increasingly popular view that legal pluralism, as reflected in doctrinal diversity, is a value that ICL should strive towards. For Stewart and Kiyani, in embracing doctrinal heterogeneity as a marker of cultural cosmopolitanism, ICL scholars, practitioners, and courts, have been barking up the wrong tree and have ignored the socio-historical context of criminal law doctrines in both domestic and international law. Instead, universal norms that represent a multitude of cultural values and political interests might be better vehicles for ICL to become a genuinely value plural enterprise.

Stewart and Kiyani assemble an arsenal of theoretical arguments and case studies to demonstrate their thesis. One of the main strengths of the article is the astonishing variety and depth of national and international doctrines relied on to illustrate the perils of using doctrinal diversity as a proxy for cultural pluralism. Moreover, in a refreshing departure from the bulk of ICL and comparative criminal law scholarship, several of their national examples, such as blasphemy laws in Pakistan, are from typically unrepresented regions of the world and are analysed with rigour and sophistication.

A work of such sweeping knowledge and bold assertions nonetheless comes with its own set of challenges, some of which I can only address in broad strokes in this short commentary. First, Stewart and Kiyani’s main focus, as they acknowledge, is on state law. More specifically, the primary target of their criticism is doctrinal state law and the borrowing of this law by international criminal law actors without regard to its history and context. This analysis could have benefited from more engagement with comparatist scholarship. A vast and, by now, fairly standard, body of comparatist scholarship is dedicated to the need to move beyond doctrine. Indeed, much of the literature of legal traditions, legal formants, and variants thereof, has repeatedly emphasized the limitations of doctrine in ways that are entirely compatible with  Stewart and Kiyani’s thesis. This leads to a question – given that almost no serious comparatist today would adopt such a narrow approach to legal systems, who exactly is championing such a blinkered vision of “diversity” in ICL?  ICL scholars, as Stewart and Kiyani point out, are usually “more considered in their pluralism”.

Are the true culprits then international tribunals? The authors discuss, for example, the adoption of conspiracy as an inchoate mode of liability at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. However, the only reference to municipal legal surveys comes in the form of the document prepared by the American Chief Prosecutor at Tokyo to refute the argument that the conspiracy doctrine was unique to Anglo-American law. The authors do not dispute that the Prosecutor was correct in his geneaology of the national laws he cited on conspiracy – their objection is to his omission of their violent history in some jurisdictions. This is an entirely sympathetic position, but it does not serve to further the thesis of the paper. Whether introduced through consent, indifference, or violence, a rule or doctrine that forms part of the criminal law of a legal system can hardly be said to be completely unknown to it. Neither do Stewart and Kiyani claim that the Tokyo tribunal ultimately went on to rely on this survey to make the further leap that conspiracy therefore embodied value pluralism. Instead, they rightly criticize the way in which the court applied the doctrine to the facts of the case, which had little to do with whether or not conspiracy was a culturally cosmopolitan legal construct.

Moreover, even if international courts are conducting national surveys of criminal law doctrine in order to formulate ICL principles, are they truly doing so in the name of cultural pluralism, or simply because national doctrine is an easily accessible source of legal concepts and ideas that can be plugged into an international criminal law regime ridden with gaps and contradictions? In Stewart and Kiyani’s analysis of the ICTY’s jurisprudence on Joint Criminal Enterprise, there are a few references to the reasoning adopted by the Appeals Chamber in the Tadić case that would support the former position. However, this remains a mostly isolated example in an extensive article that is premised on the argument that ICL practitioners treat doctrinal diversity as a substitute for legal pluralism.  In other words, while the authors draw on numerous instances where ICL practitioners rely on domestic legislation and case law to formulate ICL principles, it is far from clear that the practitioners themselves look upon this exercise as furthering value pluralism or justify it in those terms.

Relatedly, at the outset of the article, Stewart and Kiyani recognize “the inevitability of the reliance on foreign domestic criminal law by international lawyers and institutions.” However, since their underlying assumption is that foreign national doctrine is being misappropriated by international criminal law institutions to tout ostensibly pluralistic values, they fail to distinguish this superficial transplantation of domestic criminal law into the international realm, from potentially legitimate and useful reliance on national doctrines. Yet again, comparative and international criminal law scholarship could have provided a rich source material to explore this possibility. ICL scholars have, for example, criticized the practice of international criminal tribunals whereby courts conduct cursory surveys of domestic criminal laws to propose “general principles of law”. However, this does not have to entail a complete abandonment of references to domestic legal rules found in statutes and case law. These formal sources of law may still be useful for an international court, not as embodiments of cultural pluralism, but as models of legal principles that have been tested in the laboratory of domestic legal systems, and that can serve as an inspiration for rules and principles that are tailored to the requirements of the international criminal law regime.

Finally, while Stewart and Kiyani are clearly in their element in highlighting and exploring case studies from different domestic jurisdictions and international courts, at times, the link between their abstract thesis and the case study is quite tenuous. For instance, the authors claim that the failure of the domestic German war crimes trials after World War I can be explained in part by their adoption of a German criminal procedure that was in accord with native German values, but alien to other legal systems and to foreign audiences. The experience of the Leipzig war crimes trials is adduced to demonstrate that “[e]ven when criminal doctrine is a safe proxy for social and cultural values within the community it governs… this fact alone is not a sufficient condition for privileging it in a contest between normative orders.” This is a perfectly reasonable proposition except that on the authors’ own account, it is difficult to say that the criminal procedural innovations that were controversial at Leipzig should in fact be regarded as a proxy for German social and cultural values. The two specific procedural rules that Stewart and Kiyani cite were both introduced as deviations from normal German criminal procedure in 1920 and 1921. Given the care that the authors otherwise take to refrain from equating the acceptance of every single doctrinal rule with a country’s culture, it is a stretch to then argue that a recent procedural amendment introduced in the wake of a devastating war loss, and in circumstances of exceptional political tension, was reflective of German community values more broadly. Equally, with the intense resentment caused by German actions in World War I, not least in France and Belgium, it is quite likely that that no matter what procedural model had been adopted at Leipzig, acquittals in large numbers, especially of high profile defendants, would have been unlikely to secure their approbation.

None of these critical questions, however, should be taken to undermine the importance and urgency of Stewart and Kiyani’s central claim: an ICL that continues to be biased, discriminatory, and myopic will have little claim to global legitimacy and the burden of rectifying the many parochialisms of ICL is a task that falls upon all of us who care about and practice this enterprise. The article is a welcome and impressive contribution to this vital conversation.