Preventing impunity for serious human rights abuses: The Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case

SA CourtWe are delighted to welcome this guest post from Amina Adanan who holds the EJ Phelan Fellow in International Law and is a Ph.D candidate at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, School of Law, NUI Galway.

On 30 October last, the Constitutional Court of South Africa issued its decision in National Commissioner of the South African Police Service v Southern African Human Rights Litigation Centre and Another (Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case). The judgment affirms that the South African Police Service (SAPS) has a duty to investigate crimes against humanity committed outside of South Africa, subject to certain restrictions.

The case concerns the application of universal jurisdiction in South Africa. Universal jurisdiction is the prosecution of a serious human rights abuse, where the crime is committed abroad, by foreigners, against foreigners. It is a type of extraterritorial jurisdiction that applies to piracy (on the High Seas), the Slave Trade, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. Serious human rights abuses are often orchestrated by the state apparatus, thus a prosecution in the territorial state may be unlikely. As such, universal jurisdiction is vital to ensure that abuses are prosecuted. The Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act No. 27 of 2002 (ICC Act) allows South African Courts to exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity.

Background to the case

In March 2007, the Zimbabwean Police, acting under the direction of ZANU PF (the then one party government) raided the headquarters of the main opposition party, the MDC. Some MDC supporters were detained and tortured by the Zimbabwean Police. The torture was committed as part of a wide-scale and systematic operation executed against the MDC and its supporters in the run up to the 2008 elections. The acts were committed in Zimbabwe, by Zimbabweans, against Zimbabweans.

Following the incident, the South African Litigation Centre (SALC), a prominent public interest NGO, investigated the matter. SALC gathered evidence and compiled a docket, which included medical reports of victims, along with interviews and affidavits from witnesses and victims. In March 2008, the docket was forwarded to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for investigation. In June 2009, SALC received confirmation that SAPS would not investigate the alleged offences. Under the Constitution, it is the duty of the Police to investigate crime.

SALC and the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum (ZEF) then applied to the High Court in Pretoria, seeking an order to have the decision reviewed. The application was made against the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), the Head of the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit of the NPA and the National Commissioner of SAPS. After the High Court found in favour of the applicants, the National Commissioner of SAPS and the NDPP appealed the High Court’s decision to the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa. In November 2013, the Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of SALC and ZEF. Saidat Nakitto has provided an excellent analysis of the Supreme Court of Appeal decision.

The National Commissioner of SAPS then appealed the matter to the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Seven amicus curiae joined the proceedings, among them notable academics in human rights law and NGOs around the world, illustrating the importance of the case in the field of human rights.

The findings of the Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court looked to whether SAPS had an obligation to carry out pre- trial investigations into international crimes committed extraterritorially, and if so, what circumstances trigger this duty.

The obligation on SAPS to investigate international crimes committed abroad

First, the Constitutional Court noted the ‘special place’ of international law in South African law; reiterating, that the Constitution and national legislation must be interpreted in light of international law.

The Court then turned to look at Complementarity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Article 17 of the Rome Statute (and its preamble) affirm that the ICC can only hear a case, where a state with jurisdiction over the offence is unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute the crime. The ICC is complementary to national courts, when it comes to the prosecution of international crimes (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity). The ICC can exercise jurisdiction over international crimes that are committed on the territory of a state party, or by a national of a state party, or when a situation is referred to the Court from the UN Security Council. The Constitutional Court noted that a question arises as to states parties’s obligations to prosecute international crimes committed in the territory of a non-state party to the Rome Statute. Here the Court noted:

If an investigation is not instituted by non- signatory countries in which the crimes have been committed, the perpetrators can only be brought to justice through the application of universal jurisdiction, namely the investigation and prosecution of these alleged crimes by states parties under the Rome Statute.

Zimbabwe is not a state party to the Rome Statute and the National Commissioner of SAPS did not dispute the unlikelihood of the torture being investigated in Zimbabwe.

The Court then turned to look at South Africa’s jurisdiction in respect of the crime of torture. The Court noted that torture is a crime to which jus cogens status attaches and from which no derogation is permitted. South Africa had incorporated the UN Convention Against Torture into domestic law. Jurisdiction over torture on the scale of a crime against humanity had been incorporated into domestic law in South Africa by the ICC Act itself. After examining the sources of international and national law, including regional instruments, the Constitutional Court concluded that South Africa is required (where appropriate) to exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity.

The ‘connecting factors’ in South Africa’s exercise of universal jurisdiction under the ICC Act

The Court recognised that there were certain ‘connecting factors’, at least one of which must be present for an international crime to be prosecuted in South Africa. Section 4 (3) of the ICC Act, states that South African Courts have jurisdiction over international crimes committed outside of South Africa:

[A]ny person who commits a crime contemplated in subsection (1) outside the territory of the Republic, is deemed to have committed that crime in the territory of the Republic if –

(a) that person is a South African citizen; or

(b) that person is not a South African citizen but is ordinarily resident in the Republic; or

(c) that person, after the commission of the crime, is present in the territory of the Republic; or

(d) that person has committed the said crime against a South African citizen or against a person who is ordinarily resident in the Republic.

In this instance, section 4(3)(c) was relied on. SAPS argued that because the accused persons were not present in South Africa, they were not under a duty to commence an investigation. (Notwithstanding that some of the accused Zimbabwean officials visited South Africa after the crimes were committed, and were not apprehended). The ICC Act itself is silent on whether the accused need be present in South Africa for the pre-trial investigation.

After noting the work of the Institut de Droit International and the content of the amicus curiae brief submitted by John Duggard and others, the Court stated that there was no international rule that the accused must be present for the pre- trial investigation. If not, investigations into crimes against humanity would be unlikely take place. The Constitutional Court did not dispute that the presence of the accused is required at a more advanced stage of proceedings.

Limitations on the exercise of universal jurisdiction by South Africa: subsidiarity and practicability

Looking first at subsidiarity, the Court found that an investigation may only commence where another state with jurisdiction over the crime (the territorial or state of nationality of the alleged perpetrator) is unable or unwilling to do so. The reason being, ‘the principle of non- intervention in the affairs of another country must be observed’. Here, the Court borrows from the language of the principle of complementarity. The Court noted that it was unlikely that the crimes would be investigated by the Zimbabwean Police, given that six cabinet ministers were linked to the offence.

On the issue of practicability, the Court said that the South African authorities must consider if it is reasonable to carry out the investigation, in each particular case. A number of factors must be considered: (1) The likelihood of a prosecution; (2) If the accused persons are likely to enter South Africa, of their own accord, or via an extradition request; (3) The geographical location of the crime; (4) The likelihood of the accused being arrested; (5) The gathering of evidence; and (6) The nature and extent of resources required.

The Constitutional Court unanimously rejected the appeal and costs were awarded against the appellant. The Court highlighted that constitutional obligations must be carried out without delay, notwithstanding the considerable time that had lapsed since the torture had occurred. SAPS will now investigate the crime.

Points of note

There are a number of significant points that arise in this judgment. Firstly, the Rome Statute itself does not demand that states parties exercise universal jurisdiction. As stated above, the ICC has jurisdiction to hear cases relating to international crimes committed on the territory of a state party, or carried out by nationals of the states parties. States parties are obligated to incorporate these forms of jurisdiction into domestic law, at a minimum. Section 4(3) of the ICC Act does not include universal jurisdiction in express terms. The Constitutional Court interpreted section 4(3) as implying the exercise of universal jurisdiction by the South African authorities.

Second, the Constitutional Court was right to distinguish between the presence of the accused for the pre-trial investigation and the presence of the accused for the trial, as it did. State practice shows that many pre- trial investigations related to the exercise of universal jurisdiction begin without the presence of the accused in the forum state. The investigation in Spain, into crimes committed by General Augusto Pinochet during his reign in Chile, are perhaps the most famous example of this. In Belgium, investigations commenced into alleged international crimes committed by former US President George H. W. Bush, and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, without the presence of the accused.

Third, in the grand design that is modern universal jurisdiction, where the trend of states is to reduce the scope of universal jurisdiction, this judgment is refreshing. Moreover, it is an example of a non- European state taking steps to apply universal jurisdiction (which is usually exercised by European States). Since 2003, in Belgium, the national legislation on extraterritorial jurisdiction is restricted to the active and passive personality principles, or to accused persons or victims who are resident in the state. In Spain, the question of whether recent amendments the national legislation on universal jurisdiction conflict with Spain’s obligations in international law, is currently being explored by the Spanish Constitutional Court. One of the reasons for this trend is because the exercise of universal jurisdiction interferes with the forum state’s international relations. In the Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case, the Constitutional Court of South Africa did not give much attention to SAPS’s concern that the investigation would hamper South African- Zimbabwean relations. The Constitutional Court noted that inter-state tension is unavoidable in the application of universal jurisdiction.

Finally, it can also be said that this judgment is an example of how the principle of complementarity is supposed to work. As the Court noted, the primary responsibility of the prosecution of international crimes rests with the states parties. It may be the case that this judgment comes from a state with a particularly strong will when it comes to human rights. South Africa was the first African State to incorporate the Rome Statute into domestic law. This is an important judgment not only for South Africa, but for other states that exercise universal jurisdiction. It is a positive move towards preventing impunity for serious human rights abuses. Whether the judgment will appeal to other states will remain to be seen.

Case materials are available on the website of the South African Litigation Centre.

Preventing impunity for serious human rights abuses: The Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case

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