Filing of a petition with ICC: Beginning of Uighurs’ legal battle against China

Below is an article published by Modern Diplomacy, Photo credit ICJ

By Nikita Aggarwa

Uighur Muslims, a minority community in Xinjiang province of the People’s Republic of China (hereinafter China), has been subjected to state sponsored persecution by China for over past six years (It first began in 2014). Since 2017, when the reports of Chinese crackdown on Uighurs first became public; China has been attracting widespread global denunciation for subjecting this minority group to ‘arbitrary detentions, sexual abuse, forced abortions and sterilizations’. In July 2019, a group of 22 countries wrote a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemning the persecution of Uighurs. In June 2020, USA imposed various sanctions on Chinese officials over Uighur abuses by enacting the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, 2020.

The most recent attempt to hold China accountable for human rights violations entailed filing of a petition against China with the International Criminal Court (hereinafter ICC). In July 2020, Uighur exile groups ‘The East Turkistan Government in-exile’ and the ‘East Turkistan National Awakening Movement’ filed a petition against China seeking an investigation against around 30 Chinese officials for alleged repression of Uighurs. The country has been accused of committing the crimes of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. The filing of petition is a first step towards tangible justice for Uighurs. At the same time however, it opens up a pandora’s box of questions: How will ICC assume jurisdiction over China, which is not a member to its Statute? Will China cooperate in the investigation? Why wasn’t the International Court of Justice (hereinafter ICJ) approached?

Building a case for the International Criminal Court to take Jurisdiction:

China is not a signatory to the Rome Statute which governs the functioning of ICC. ICC therefore, does not have a direct Jurisdiction over China and its nationals. However, as alleged by the petitioners, China has been deporting these Muslims from Tajikistan and Cambodia – State parties to the Statute. The petitioners have thus argued that since a part of the crime has been committed on the territory of member states of ICC, it can assume jurisdiction over the case.

Interestingly, a similar set of facts and arguments have faced ICC earlier as well. In 2018, the court was approached to rule upon its jurisdiction over alleged mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar – a non-member state. In the said case too, it was claimed that the Court has Jurisdiction over those who committed crimes against the Rohingyas under article 12(2)(a) of the Statute “because an essential legal element of the crime- crossing an international border- occurred on the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute (Bangladesh)”. ICC’s pre-trial Chamber I ruled that it “has jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of members of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh”. It further added that “If it were established that at least an element of another crime within the jurisdiction of the Court or part of such a crime is committed on the territory of a State Party, the Court might assert jurisdiction pursuant to article 12(2)(a) of the Statute”. Expecting a similar ruling in the Uighurs’ case is thus not an unrealistic dream.

In fact, from the juxtaposition of the facts, crimes and parties involved in the two cases, itcan be safely deduced that there exists a high probability of ICC assuming jurisdiction and initiating investigations into alleged criminal acts concerning Uighurs. On humanitarian grounds, it perhaps will be a step in the right direction. Indubitably, grave crimes like these cannot be avoided or deferred based on mere technicalities. However, it certainly would go against certain long-established principles of International Law.

Roadblocks

ICC’s assumption of jurisdiction would, at the very least, be in circumvention of the very spirit of Article 34 of Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which states that “A treaty does not create either obligations or rights for a third state without its consent.” Since China is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, it must not be obligatory for it to submit to the jurisdiction of ICC. Another principle of law, which ICC would be going against is ‘Ubilexvoluit, dicit; ubinoluit, tacit’. It means ‘if the law means something, it says; if it does not mean something, it does not say it’. Now, under the Rome Statute, ICC can exercise jurisdiction only under three circumstances– where the alleged perpetrator is a national of a State Party or where the crime was committed in the territory of a State Part (1) , or a State not party to the may decide to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC(2), or the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, can refer a situation to the Office of the Prosecutor (3). The intention of the draftsmen with regards to Jurisdiction of ICC is thus very clear – ICC shall not exercise jurisdiction over non-member states. The written law does not provide for a jurisdiction over non-member states except by a referral from the UNSC.

It not only would reinforce wrongful persuasion but might also turn out be completely ineffective because International Tribunals do not succeed when the necessary state parties do not submit to their jurisdiction itself. In this regard, ICC itself has noted that, “as a judicial institution, the ICC does not have its own police force or enforcement body; thus, it relies on cooperation with countries worldwide for support.”Non-States parties are not obligated to cooperate with ICC for making arrests, freezing suspects’ assets etc.

It is very unlikely that China will even appear before the International Court. If it does, it surely will contest ICC’s jurisdiction. ICC would thus have to negate each of the above arguments. Given the low probability of China cooperating in an investigation initiated by ICC, Justice to Uighurs will not come easily even after the jurisdiction is taken by ICC.

A Case at the ICJ in the alternative

Chinese atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang are also in violation of various provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“the Genocide Convention”), to which China is a party. ‘Genocide’, under Article II of the Convention, among others includes ‘Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’ and ‘imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group’.A study undertaken by Human Rights Watch on Chinese repression of Uighurs has reported ‘political indoctrination’, ‘deaths in custody’, ‘torture’ and ‘mistreatment’ of Uighurs. Another report gives a detailed account of forced sterilization and employment of other birth control techniques on Uighur Women to supress Uighur birth rates in the Country. These fiendish acts fall under the crime of ‘Genocide’, punishable under Article IX of the Convention.Article IX prescribes that the disputes “relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or for any of the other acts enumerated in article III, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute.”

Now, for a dispute to be adjudicated by ICJ, any of three conditions under Article 36 have to be satisfied: (1) If the state has made a declaration under Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ’s statute granting the court compulsory jurisdiction over disputes under international law; or, (2) where a particular treaty provides the ICJ as its dispute resolution mechanism; or, (3) by entering into a special agreement to submit the dispute to the Court. Since China had withdrawn its declaration under Article 36(2) of the ICJ Statute, it is not under compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. But China has ratified the Genocide Convention which prescribes ICJ as the dispute resolution body. Therefore, any Contracting Party to the Convention may bring a case against China. It thus follows that ICJ’s jurisdiction in the matter at hand can be founded under Article 36, Paragraph 1 of the ICJ Statute read with Article IX of the Genocide Convention.

Bringing China under the radar of ICJ would have been easier yet less effective. ICJ, under its statute, is not empowered to prosecute individuals. It could, at the most, order China to cease ongoing genocide and to prevent genocide from occurring in the future. Additionally, it can also order equitable remedies like ordering China to enact legislation to criminalize genocide in line with the requirements of the Genocide Convention. On the other hand, ICC’s purpose of establishment itself was prosecution of individuals. It can impose lengthy terms of imprisonment of up to 30 years, order a fine, forfeiture of proceeds, property or assets derived from the committed crime. ICC’s mechanism thus suits the best in the current scenario.

Concluding thoughts

Past precedent on China’s response to international adjudication is not very encouraging. Traditionally it has shunned all international adjudication, preferring to settle all disputes through direct negotiation. The past experiences of Chinese response to international adjudication invited remarks like “Putting ‘China’ and ‘international law’ in the same sentence is an oxymoron.” When China lost to Philippines in the South China Sea Case, a former Chinese diplomat openly said that this judgment was “nothing more than a piece of paper”.

Even if China accede to international adjudication of any sorts, neither ICC nor ICJ has the mandate to enforce their judgments. Adding onto the misery, China being a permanent member of UNSC can veto any resolution pertaining to enforcement of a ruling against itself. Nevertheless, filing of a petition at ICC is itself a step towards justice. It sends an indication to China’s government that the international community will no longer condone its actions. In the long run, attaining justice for Uighurs might take filing of cases at multiple judicial institutions as in the case of ‘mistreatment of Rohingyas’. There is even a possibility that a parallel case may be filed at the ICJ. This is only a first step in the Uighurs’ battle against China.