The Inherent Pluralism of International Criminal Law

Alexander K. A. Greenawalt is a Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. His research focuses on criminal law, international law, and the laws of war.

I am grateful to James Stewart for inviting me to participate in this symposium on the provocative, deeply researched, and illuminating article that he and Asad Kiyani have authored. I have enjoyed engaging Stewart’s work over the years—including in a recent article on complicity which greatly benefitted from his writings—and I look forward to reading more of Kiyani’s work.

Let me start by identifying some points of agreement. I share the authors’ conviction that it is worth looking for right answers in criminal law, and I agree that those answers can transcend sometimes superficial doctrinal differences among legal systems (indeed, my above-linked article on complicity advances precisely such a claim). I also agree that it is misguided to romanticize difference for the sake of difference and that one must avoid the casual assumption that national criminal laws always have claim to deep cultural authenticity within the societies they regulate.

As Stewart and Kiyani note, I have used the word “pluralism” to defend a particular approach to international criminal law (“ICL”). Stewart and Kiyani are skeptical about pluralist approaches to ICL, but I struggled when reading their article to understand how exactly their position might impact my own, or indeed the actual practice of ICL. In part, this is because I find their account of pluralism somewhat elusive. Sometimes the authors seem to suggest that pluralism means blind deference to every doctrine of domestic criminal law no matter how oppressive. Elsewhere (among other approaches), they associate pluralism with a method by which ICL might arrive at consensus international standards—namely, by embracing rules derived from national criminal law that reflect a “real degree of inclusive, plural, cosmopolitan values” and are “doctrinally plural within a diverse, conflicting, sometimes inter-penetrating system of criminal law.” I am not aware of any scholar who has advanced the first position and the second claim is not one that I would associate with pluralism in the sense that I have used the term, although it does resemble a standard methodology embraced by international criminal tribunals attempting (sometimes misleadingly as the authors observe) to marshal support for universalist claims about the content of ICL.

I am curious, as well, about how exactly Stewart and Kiyani’s broad rejection of pluralism informs the actual practice of international criminal justice institutions. Take, for instance, the International Criminal Court’s (“ICC”) complementarity requirement which sometimes requires the Court to defer its jurisdiction in favor of criminal justice at the national level. Suppose the ICC is pursuing a suspect in the Democratic Republic Congo (“DRC”) who is being investigated at the national level for the same conduct. Do the authors believe that complementarity can or should apply in a case like that, or should the systemic, historically rooted deficiencies they identify in the DRC’s criminal law categorically preclude deference in all cases? Or perhaps complementarity itself should be abandoned because it inherently introduces the problems of pluralism that the authors explore? How then should a global system of ICL proceed if it rejects domestic prosecutions of international crimes?

The most obvious solution I can glean from Stewart and Kiyani’s article is that the world must coalesce around a single, best, cross-cultural and universal approach to all questions of criminal law and procedure, one that is devoid of power politics or cultural bias. If the world can achieve that, then I agree that the normative defense of pluralism becomes quite unconvincing indeed. But if that is the claim, then the authors must establish far more—and overcome far greater hurdles—than they do in this article.

For example, even if the world were to coalesce around the unitary theory of perpetration that the authors advocate (rejecting formally differentiated modes of criminally participation) I don’t see how the general choice of a unitary versus differentiated model is especially important in comparison to the host of other choices affecting guilt, innocence, and degrees of culpability that must be decided upon under either model.

Perhaps, however, one should read Stewart and Kiyani to advance a more modest claim that universalism is something to work for, that some universal answers are accessible, and that the blind embrace of pluralism is both threatening to this project and harmful given the colonial origins and distortions evident in many criminal law systems. If that is the claim, then I agree with the central thrust of the argument, but my own defense of pluralism does not proceed from the assumption that national criminal law demands blind deference or that it necessarily has some claim to deep cultural authenticity. To me, the central question is not one of universalism versus pluralism, but of how to manage the pluralism that unavoidably has accompanied the establishment of ICL. I also believe that my own framework accommodates many of the concerns that the authors raise, and so I will attempt in the remainder of this post to sketch out some of my own thoughts on this issue and attempt to see how they may accommodate at least of some of the concerns raised by Stewart and Kiyani.

I begin with the fact that there is variety in the criminal law. I agree (even outside the colonial context) that variety need not have any deep cultural basis. While differences among states may sometimes reflect important cultural fault lines, they are just as likely to reflect arbitrary, and sometimes pernicious, historical vestiges or the influence of judicial interpretation.

International law, in its current state, is hardly agnostic about this diversity. The body of international law that most broadly regulates these choices is international human rights law (“IHRL”). Many of the examples that Stewart and Kiyani invoke—judicial bias after World War I, restrictions on freedom of association, anti-blasphemy laws—reflect straightforward human rights violations. As a matter of IHRL (as the authors themselves acknowledge), these examples already offend universal values.

ICL, by contrast, presents only a limited intervention by international law into matters of criminal law. ICL evolved, in my view, not to harmonize national approaches to criminal law, or even to define and regulate uniquely “international” offenses in some qualitative sense, but instead to enable institutional interventions that counteract unique obstacles to the prosecution of certain especially grave offenses. The point of prosecuting Holocaust crimes at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, for example, was not to reject German criminal law’s general judgments about how to define and assign liability for murder in ordinary cases. The point was to counteract and ensure accountability for the specific ways in which Nazi Germany had made an exception to those judgments by converting the state into a system of domestically authorized mass extermination. I believe that ICL speaks the most strongly when it works to justify and define the scope of such interventions, and it speaks more tentatively (although not entirely without authority) when it addresses more general questions about what it means to be a criminal.

How does this way of looking at things interact with Stewart and Kiyani’s specific claims? In previous work I have explored the example of the Erdemović case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) involving a soldier who was forced under threat of death to participate in a firing line that massacred Bosnian Muslim civilians.   The ICTY Appeals Chamber rejected the defense on (I believe unpersuasive) policy grounds, notwithstanding the unresolved nature of the question under international law and the fact that many states, including all the republics of the former Yugoslavia, take a more permissive approach to duress.

I do not know whether Stewart and Kiyani have access to an optimal, universalist approach to duress. My position is that the ICTY should have looked to Bosnian law under the circumstances. In advancing this argument, I do not assume that the Bosnian criminal code reflects a deeply embedded and culturally specific approach to duress. Rather the Bosnian law reflects a fairly standard civil law approach that the state inherited from its prior membership in communist Yugoslavia. I think that the law of duress presents unavoidably hard questions, that all the dominant legal approaches to the issue are problematic in some respects, and that the Bosnian law falls within a range of reasonable disagreement that neither offends core human rights value nor the specific purposes of ICL. In a case like that, I don’t think that ICL has a strong interest in overriding the local law to deprive the accused of a defense which his society affords to other similarly situated persons. But even if one disagrees with that specific conclusion, the same problem arises in other guises. Suppose that the Bosnia’s own courts were prosecuting Erdemović for international crimes. Must those courts also prefer the ICTY’s approach to duress over their own? And what about ordinary domestic prosecutions for non-international crimes? Wherever one draws the line, the basic problem remains: absent universal, global agreement on how to handle duress, some defendants must be treated differently from others based on perhaps arbitrary, non-culpability driven reasons. Similar issues arise with respect to other standards of responsibility, principles of sentencing and so forth. Must ICL take an absolute position on every one of these questions, no matter how tangential the doctrinal issue is to ICL’s core mission?

At the same time, I agree (and have argued) that is desirable to have a single, comprehensive set of ICL rules that are available for use by a global court like the ICC and in other contexts where reliance on domestic legal principles proves problematic or undesirable. There are many reasons to favor this restult, including problems that Stewart and Kiyani explore as well as concerns having to do with clarity and administrability. But I do not think that those reasons exhaust all the procedural contexts in which ICL finds itself enforced. In the end, implementation of ICL involves a number of situation-specific considerations that cannot be resolved by broad appeals to either universalism or pluralism. Instead, there are a balance of factors to consider. Stewart and Kiyani convincingly elucidate some important factors that may sometimes arise. But they do not, in my view, eliminate the need for such balancing.