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The Defense of Superior Orders - Article 33 of the ICC statute: a departure from customary international law?

Abrahamsson, Marcus LU (2018) JURM02 20182
Department of Law
Faculty of Law
Abstract
The defence of superior orders is the answer to what is called the soldier’s dilemma. This is so called since on the one hand, a soldier is bound by national legislation, military practice, and often psychological pressure to unquestioningly follow the orders of his superior. On the other hand, when this order is illegal, he is bound by international law to refuse to follow the order. There are three schools of thought on how to solve this dilemma.

For a long time, lower level soldiers were always excused for crimes committed pursuant to orders (i.e. respondeat superior). In the late 19th century and early 20th century this changed to an approach where soldiers could be excused, but only if they did not know, or should not have known,... (More)
The defence of superior orders is the answer to what is called the soldier’s dilemma. This is so called since on the one hand, a soldier is bound by national legislation, military practice, and often psychological pressure to unquestioningly follow the orders of his superior. On the other hand, when this order is illegal, he is bound by international law to refuse to follow the order. There are three schools of thought on how to solve this dilemma.

For a long time, lower level soldiers were always excused for crimes committed pursuant to orders (i.e. respondeat superior). In the late 19th century and early 20th century this changed to an approach where soldiers could be excused, but only if they did not know, or should not have known, that the order was illegal (i.e. conditional liability). With the creation of the Nuremberg tribunal after the second world war, this theory was abandoned in favour of an approach where following orders never could amount to a complete defence for a breach of International Criminal Law (ICL) (i.e. absolute liability). The absolute liability approach was thereafter used in the ad hoc tribunals created to hold war-criminals responsible for the crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (the ICTY and the ICTR). Then the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established, and in its treaty the defence of superior orders was once again partially recognised in accordance with the theory of conditional liability. According to Article 33 of its statute, the defence of superior orders can be considered as a full defence, but only in cases where the defendant did not know the order was illegal, and the order was not manifestly illegal. Furthermore, the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity are presumed to be manifestly illegal (leaving the other two “core crimes”, war crimes and the crime of aggression, as the only crimes covered by the provision).

This has been criticised as a departure from customary international law, and redundant in that no crime as expressed in the ICC statute ever could be anything but manifestly illegal. It has also been criticised for making a distinction between the different core crimes without basis in law. The aim of this thesis to assess this critique and reach my own conclusions as to whether a departure was made from customary international law with the drafting of Article 33 of the ICC statute, whether the defence should exist in ICL, and if so, how it should be formulated.

The theory of respondeat superior is rooted in national law and in the idea of military discipline. It is argued that since soldiers are trained to carry out orders without question, they should be excused if one of these orders amounts to a crime, and only the one issuing the order may be held accountable. As has been convincingly argued by both legal scholars and judges in the tribunals however, this is not tenable. A soldier is not a machine but a thinking human being. Furthermore, reductio ad absurdum, this approach would lead to only Hitler being accountable for the crimes of the holocaust. Therefore, it was rightly abandoned, and has to my knowledge no supporters within the legal debate today.

The theory of absolute liability was adopted by the Nuremberg Tribunal, which brought some of the highest-level officials from the Nazi regime to justice. Thereafter it was used in the subsequent proceedings and the ICTY and the ICTR. The rationale behind this theory is that it is irrelevant whether someone was ordered to commit a crime or not. He is equally blameworthy if he commits a crime of his own volition as if he commits it pursuant to an order. If a soldier is threatened at gun-point, or do not know the order is illegal, he could instead rely on defences of duress or mistake.

The theory of conditional liability acknowledges that in some cases, especially on the field of battle, it is not always readily apparent to a soldier whether the order received was legal or not. Therefore, it states that a soldier is excused from crimes committed under order, but not if these orders were obviously illegal (sometimes phrased as whether the soldier should have known that the order was illegal), or if he knew that the order was illegal. This approach has been used in the Leipzig trials, and in national military tribunals. In the ICC, this approach is accepted for war crimes and for the crime of aggression, but for the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity the strict liability approach still reigns. Here, the test is whether the soldier knew the order was illegal, or whether it was manifestly illegal.

As to whether this is a departure from customary international law, my answer is in the negative. This is because the Nuremberg charter was created for a very specific and extreme situation, and therefore cannot be considered an expression of customary international law. Rather, I read the provision as excluding the defence for the purposes of trying these high-level officials, for these heinous crimes.

As to the argument that the defence should be excluded since no crime within the jurisdiction of the ICC ever could be anything but manifestly unlawful, my answer is once again in the negative. Some of the war crimes outlined in the statute require a complicated set of events, and hypothetically it is not impossible to find some example of when an act constituting the objective elements of these crimes would not be manifestly illegal. Furthermore, to exclude a defence based on an assumption that it “will not be used anyway” seems unnecessary and incompatible with the theory of individual criminal responsibility.

For the same reason as above, I do agree with the criticism regarding excluding the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity from the defence. As to whether the manifest illegality test should be objective or subjective, I believe that it is right to set an objective standard. This is due to the fact that in some cases, especially when it comes to these serious crimes, ignorance should not be an excuse. (Less)
Abstract (Swedish)
Inom internationell straffrätt har det länge debatterats huruvida försvaret att en soldat begått ett internationellt brott efter befallning av förman ska innebära ansvarsfrihet för den åtalade. Om en soldat blir beordrad av sin befälhavare att begå ett brott så står han inför ett dilemma. Han kan antingen vägra, och riskera repressalier från nationellt håll, eller begå brottet, och riskera att bli straffad av en internationell tribunal i efterhand. Historiskt har det funnits tre teorier om hur en sådan situation ska lösas. Den äldsta teorin kallas ”respondeat superior”, och den innebär att en soldat alltid är ursäktad om han begår brott under order, och att enbart den som ger ordern kan hållas ansvarig för brottet. I slutet av 1800-talet... (More)
Inom internationell straffrätt har det länge debatterats huruvida försvaret att en soldat begått ett internationellt brott efter befallning av förman ska innebära ansvarsfrihet för den åtalade. Om en soldat blir beordrad av sin befälhavare att begå ett brott så står han inför ett dilemma. Han kan antingen vägra, och riskera repressalier från nationellt håll, eller begå brottet, och riskera att bli straffad av en internationell tribunal i efterhand. Historiskt har det funnits tre teorier om hur en sådan situation ska lösas. Den äldsta teorin kallas ”respondeat superior”, och den innebär att en soldat alltid är ursäktad om han begår brott under order, och att enbart den som ger ordern kan hållas ansvarig för brottet. I slutet av 1800-talet och början av 1900-talet övergavs den teorin i stor utsträckning, och blev ersatt av en teori som kan kallas ”villkorlig ansvarsfrihet”. Enligt den teorin är soldaten ursäktad om han inte visste, eller inte borde ha vetat, att ordern var olaglig. I annat fall ska även den underordnade stå till svars för brottet. När Nürnbergtribunalen bildades övergavs den teorin till förmån för en teori som kan kallas ”absolut ansvar”. Enligt den teorin spelar det över huvud taget ingen roll om ett brott begås under order eller på eget initiativ, och ett försvar som går ut på att ”jag bara följde order” var uttryckligen exkluderat från Nürnbergstadgan. Rwandatribunalen och tribunalen för det forna Jugoslavien hade samma exkludering i sina stadgor. Sen bildades den internationella brottsmålsdomstolen, vilken i sin artikel 33 till hälften accepterade teorin om villkorlig ansvarsfrihet (för aggressionsbrott och krigsförbrytelser), och till hälften föreskrev teorin om absolut ansvar (för folkmord och brott mot mänskligheten).

Detta har kritiserats som en avvikelse från internationell sedvanerätt, samt överflödig då det har hävdats att inget brott inom domstolens jurisdiktion kan vara annat än uppenbart rättsstridig. Artikeln har också kritiserats för att den utan grund har gjort en distinktion mellan de fyra grundläggande brotten. Målet med det här examensarbetet är att bedöma denna kritik och dra mina egna slutsatser kring dessa frågor, samt dra mina egna slutsatser kring huruvida ansvarsfrihetsgrunden befallning av förman bör vara en del av den internationella kriminalrätten och i sådana fall hur en sådan ansvarsfrihetsgrund bör vara utformad. Detta kommer jag göra genom en klassiskt rättsdogmatisk metod, samt en kritisk bedömning av argumentationen i domar och doktrin.

”Respondeat superior-teorin” har sin grund i nationell rätt och en teori om militär disciplin. Argumentationen är att soldater är utbildade till att lyda order snabbt och reflexmässigt, samt att de varken är i en position att kunna, eller har kunskap nog att bedöma, lagligheten i en order (särskilt i fält). De bör därför vara ursäktade om det sedan visar sig att ordern de löd innebar ett brott, och enbart förmannen som gav ordern bör kunna straffas. Motargumentet är att en soldat inte är en maskin, utan en människa fullt kapabel att tänka själv, särskilt när vi talar om så allvarliga brott som de fyra grundläggande brotten. Dessutom skulle en acceptans av den här teorin, reductio ad absurdum, leda till att enbart Hitler skulle kunna hållas ansvarig för brotten begångna under förintelsen. Enligt min vetskap är det ingen i dagens debatt som förespråkar ett återvändande till den här lösningen.

Teorin om absolut ansvar stadfästes i Nürnbergtribunalen, vilken drog några av de högst uppsatta i nazityskland inför rätta. Därefter har den använts i Tribunalen för det forna Jugoslavien samt i Rwandatribunalen. Enligt den här teorin är det helt irrelevant om ett brott begås under order. En soldat som begår ett brott är lika klandervärd om han begår det under order som om han gör det på eget bevåg. Om soldaten blir hotad att utföra ordern så är det istället bestämmelserna om nöd som blir applicerbara.

Teorin om villkorlig ansvarsfrihet medger att i vissa fall, särskilt i fält, är det inte alltid helt uppenbart för en soldat huruvida en order är laglig eller inte. Därför stadgar den att en soldat är ursäktad om han begår brott under order av en förman, givet att han inte visste att ordern var olaglig, samt att ordern inte var uppenbart olaglig (ibland är det senare kriteriet istället att soldaten inte borde ha vetat att ordern var olaglig). Detta synsätt har använts i Leipzigtribunalen och i nationella militära tribunaler. I den internationella brottsmålsdomstolen används den för krigsbrott och aggressionsbrott. Här är testet för att bedöma ansvarsfrihet huruvida den åtalade visste att ordern var olaglig, och om ordern var uppenbart olaglig (om någon av dessa situationer är för handen fritas inte den åtalade från rättsligt ansvar).

På frågan om denna bestämmelse innebar ett avsteg från internationell sedvanerätt är mitt svar nekande. Detta då Nürnbergstadgan skapades för en väldigt specifik och extrem situation, och därför inte är lämpad att applicera generellt. Jag sällar mig till de som menar att stadgan enbart syftade till att i just det här fallet, när höga ledare som haft en stor skuld till förintelsen åtalas, så ska en invändning om bindande order lämnas utan avseende.

Gällande frågan om artikel 33 är överflödig och bör exkluderas då ingen order att begå ett brott såsom det definieras i stadgan kan vara annat än uppenbart olaglig är mitt svar också nekande. Jag håller med om att i de allra flesta fall, kanske till och med i alla fall, så kommer denna ansvarsfrihetsgrund nekas då ordern kommer bedömas som uppenbart olaglig. Det är dock inte helt säkert att så är fallet, och vi vet inte vilka situationer som kommer bli hänskjutna till den internationella brottsmålsdomstolen i framtiden. Att utesluta en ansvarsfrihetsgrund på förhand baserat på ett antagande om att det inte kommer vinna framgång rimmar dessutom illa med principen om personligt straffrättsligt ansvar och oskyldighetspresumtionen.
På samma grunder som jag nämnt ovan så håller jag dock med om kritiken att det var fel att på förhand exkludera ansvarsfrihetsgrunden för brotten folkmord och brott mot mänskligheten. Särskilt då det inte finns någon folkrättslig grund för att värdera de fyra grundläggande brotten olika. Gällande huruvida kriteriet om uppenbar olaglighet bör bedömas objektivt eller subjektivt förespråkar jag en objektiv bedömning. Detta då jag anser att även oförlåtlig försumlighet, i vissa fall, bör vara straffbart. (Less)
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author
Abrahamsson, Marcus LU
supervisor
organization
course
JURM02 20182
year
type
H3 - Professional qualifications (4 Years - )
subject
keywords
public international law, international criminal law, jurisprudence, law
language
English
id
8972884
date added to LUP
2019-04-03 13:16:29
date last changed
2019-04-03 13:16:29
@misc{8972884,
  abstract     = {The defence of superior orders is the answer to what is called the soldier’s dilemma. This is so called since on the one hand, a soldier is bound by national legislation, military practice, and often psychological pressure to unquestioningly follow the orders of his superior. On the other hand, when this order is illegal, he is bound by international law to refuse to follow the order. There are three schools of thought on how to solve this dilemma.

For a long time, lower level soldiers were always excused for crimes committed pursuant to orders (i.e. respondeat superior). In the late 19th century and early 20th century this changed to an approach where soldiers could be excused, but only if they did not know, or should not have known, that the order was illegal (i.e. conditional liability). With the creation of the Nuremberg tribunal after the second world war, this theory was abandoned in favour of an approach where following orders never could amount to a complete defence for a breach of International Criminal Law (ICL) (i.e. absolute liability). The absolute liability approach was thereafter used in the ad hoc tribunals created to hold war-criminals responsible for the crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (the ICTY and the ICTR). Then the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established, and in its treaty the defence of superior orders was once again partially recognised in accordance with the theory of conditional liability. According to Article 33 of its statute, the defence of superior orders can be considered as a full defence, but only in cases where the defendant did not know the order was illegal, and the order was not manifestly illegal. Furthermore, the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity are presumed to be manifestly illegal (leaving the other two “core crimes”, war crimes and the crime of aggression, as the only crimes covered by the provision).

This has been criticised as a departure from customary international law, and redundant in that no crime as expressed in the ICC statute ever could be anything but manifestly illegal. It has also been criticised for making a distinction between the different core crimes without basis in law. The aim of this thesis to assess this critique and reach my own conclusions as to whether a departure was made from customary international law with the drafting of Article 33 of the ICC statute, whether the defence should exist in ICL, and if so, how it should be formulated.

The theory of respondeat superior is rooted in national law and in the idea of military discipline. It is argued that since soldiers are trained to carry out orders without question, they should be excused if one of these orders amounts to a crime, and only the one issuing the order may be held accountable. As has been convincingly argued by both legal scholars and judges in the tribunals however, this is not tenable. A soldier is not a machine but a thinking human being. Furthermore, reductio ad absurdum, this approach would lead to only Hitler being accountable for the crimes of the holocaust. Therefore, it was rightly abandoned, and has to my knowledge no supporters within the legal debate today.

The theory of absolute liability was adopted by the Nuremberg Tribunal, which brought some of the highest-level officials from the Nazi regime to justice. Thereafter it was used in the subsequent proceedings and the ICTY and the ICTR. The rationale behind this theory is that it is irrelevant whether someone was ordered to commit a crime or not. He is equally blameworthy if he commits a crime of his own volition as if he commits it pursuant to an order. If a soldier is threatened at gun-point, or do not know the order is illegal, he could instead rely on defences of duress or mistake.

The theory of conditional liability acknowledges that in some cases, especially on the field of battle, it is not always readily apparent to a soldier whether the order received was legal or not. Therefore, it states that a soldier is excused from crimes committed under order, but not if these orders were obviously illegal (sometimes phrased as whether the soldier should have known that the order was illegal), or if he knew that the order was illegal. This approach has been used in the Leipzig trials, and in national military tribunals. In the ICC, this approach is accepted for war crimes and for the crime of aggression, but for the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity the strict liability approach still reigns. Here, the test is whether the soldier knew the order was illegal, or whether it was manifestly illegal.

As to whether this is a departure from customary international law, my answer is in the negative. This is because the Nuremberg charter was created for a very specific and extreme situation, and therefore cannot be considered an expression of customary international law. Rather, I read the provision as excluding the defence for the purposes of trying these high-level officials, for these heinous crimes.

As to the argument that the defence should be excluded since no crime within the jurisdiction of the ICC ever could be anything but manifestly unlawful, my answer is once again in the negative. Some of the war crimes outlined in the statute require a complicated set of events, and hypothetically it is not impossible to find some example of when an act constituting the objective elements of these crimes would not be manifestly illegal. Furthermore, to exclude a defence based on an assumption that it “will not be used anyway” seems unnecessary and incompatible with the theory of individual criminal responsibility.

For the same reason as above, I do agree with the criticism regarding excluding the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity from the defence. As to whether the manifest illegality test should be objective or subjective, I believe that it is right to set an objective standard. This is due to the fact that in some cases, especially when it comes to these serious crimes, ignorance should not be an excuse.},
  author       = {Abrahamsson, Marcus},
  keyword      = {public international law,international criminal law,jurisprudence,law},
  language     = {eng},
  note         = {Student Paper},
  title        = {The Defense of Superior Orders - Article 33 of the ICC statute: a departure from customary international law?},
  year         = {2018},
}