human rights & business (and a few other things)

Evaluating the Likelihood of an ICC Prosecution for Crimes Committed by Chiquita Banana Employees in Colombia

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It is a pleasure to welcome Dr Caleb Wheeler on Rights as Usual (@CalebHWheeler). Caleb is a lecturer in law at Middlesex University in London whose work focuses on international criminal law and international human rights law. This post is his.

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In May 2017, three non-governmental organisations submitted an Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court seeking the expansion of the Office of the Prosecutor’s on-going preliminary investigation in Colombia to include corporate officials of Chiquita Brands International, Inc. (‘Chiquita’). I scrutinised the claims made in the Communication in a recent article published in the Melbourne Journal of International Law in an effort to determine whether this case could serve as an opportunity for the International Criminal Court to pursue corporate officials for their complicity in the commission of atrocity crimes. This could allow the Court to expand the scope of its work beyond the military and political leaders it has pursued thus far, and to provide an international forum in which to try the employees of corporations involved in the commission of atrocity crimes. Unfortunately, the International Criminal Court’s Statute, as written, will make it very difficult for such prosecutions to succeed.

Background

The Article 15 Communication alleges that corporate officials employed by Chiquita made recurring payments to affiliates of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (‘AUC’), despite the fact that those officials were aware that the AUC was committing crimes against humanity. That the AUC was committing human rights abuses is largely beyond dispute. At least six members of the AUC have been convicted of crimes committed within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court, including murder, attempted murder, abduction, forced displacement and child recruitment. Additionally, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has concluded that a reasonable basis exists to believe that guerilla and paramilitary groups, including the AUC, committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during the relevant time periods.

Chiquita made the payments as part of a corporate policy implemented for the purpose of protecting Chiquita holdings in Colombia from harm threatened by the AUC. Chiquita has admitted that it knew no later than 2000 that the AUC was committing atrocity crimes.  Chiquita continued to make payments to the AUC even after it was declared a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ by the government of the United States and despite the fact that Chiquita had been advised that it was acting illegally by continuing to pay the AUC. Chiquita only stopped making payments to the AUC several months before entirely divesting itself of its Colombian operations. It is asserted in the Communication that the money paid by Chiquita represented a significant contribution to the human rights abuses committed by the AUC.

The Meaning of Significant Contribution

The likelihood of an International Criminal Court prosecution being successful in this matter will turn on whether sufficient evidence exists to show that the implicated Chiquita employees made a significant contribution to the crimes committed by the AUC. Whether the accuseds’ actions constitute a significant contribution to the commission of the alleged crimes is determined by considering the accused person’s relevant conduct and the context in which his or her conduct is performed. In this case, it is debatable whether the amount of money paid to the AUC by Chiquita, estimated to be approximately 1.7 million USD over a period of seven years, constituted a significant contribution to the crimes committed by the AUC. Without knowing the full extent of the AUC’s assets during the relevant period, it is believed that by 2002 the AUC controlled 40% of Colombian cocaine trafficking and had an annual income of approximately 100 million USD. The Chiquita payments made up less than one quarter of 1 per cent of the AUC’s annual income suggesting that the money paid by Chiquita did not significantly contribute to the scope of the group’s activities.

Questions about the significance of the contribution are further reinforced by a lack of evidence linking the money Chiquita paid directly to the AUC’s criminal acts. At present, there is no evidence to support a reasonable suspicion that Chiquita’s employees made payments to the AUC for the purpose of furthering the AUC’s criminal activities. The mere supposition that because Chiquita paid money to the AUC, and the AUC in turn committed atrocity crimes means that Chiquita’s money was used to fund the commission of those crimes, is likely insufficient to lead to the conviction of Chiquita employees. In fact, Chiquita insists that the payments were made as a result of duress, although it is dubious whether that claim will hold up under scrutiny. Further, while Chiquita and its employees knew the AUC was committing atrocity crimes, there is no direct link between the money paid by Chiquita and any specific crimes committed by the AUC. Without this evidence it would be very difficult for the International Criminal Court to impose liability.

This analysis leads to the conclusion that the International Criminal Court is likely not the best forum for pursuing corporate actors for human rights violations. Here, we have a situation in which multiple members of the AUC have been convicted of atrocity crimes, Chiquita has admitted that it was aware that those crimes were being carried out and it still continued making payments to the AUC. Despite this undisputed evidence, an International Criminal Court prosecution will almost certainly fail because there is no direct link between the money paid and the crimes committed. If a case with such clear evidence stands little chance of success it is difficult to imagine that the Court will have much enthusiasm for pursuing other cases involving human rights violations committed by business entities.

Recent Developments

There is, however, some cause for hope. On 31 August 2018, the Colombian Attorney General charged 13 former Chiquita executives with crimes against humanity in relation to their funding of the AUC. By charging these 13 former Chiquita executives Colombia has indicated both its willingness and ability to investigate and prosecute the crimes alleged. While these cases are in the very early stages, it is encouraging that they have been brought at all. It further demonstrates that, as it stands, domestic courts are probably the best option for litigating human rights violations committed in the context of corporate operations.


FIFA and the IOC’s Human Rights Reporting Tools – a Flower in the Remedy Bouquet

It is a pleasure to welcome Daniela Heerdt on Rights as Usual (@DanielaHeerdt). Daniela is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School. She also coordinates the Netherlands Network for Business and Human Rights (@NLNBHR). This post is hers.

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As awareness of the adverse human rights impact of mega-sporting events began to spread, international sports organizations stepped up their efforts to protect human rights. In 2017, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopted new bidding regulations for the 2026 World Cup, which explicitly refer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (hereafter the UNGPs). The Host City Contract for the 2024 Olympic Games is the first ever to mention human rights standards, including the UNGPs. This blog post focuses on efforts by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with regard to the UNGPs’ third pillar, access to remedy. It compares FIFA and the IOC’s recently launched reporting tools, and questions whether they constitute effective remedies.

The Meaning of Effective Remedies in the Sports Context

The UNGPs clarify that in order for a mechanism to qualify as a remedy mechanism, its outcome must be able to restore a situation to how it was before the harm occurred, or compensate the harm if restoration is not an option (see commentary to Principle 25). A mechanism is considered effective if it is legitimate, accessible, predictable, equitable, transparent, rights-compatible, a source of continuous learning, and in the case of operational-level mechanisms, based on engagement and dialogue (Principle 31). The question is: to what extent does this set of criteria also apply to assessing remedy mechanisms in the sports context? On the one hand, the commitment of major international sports bodies to the UNGPs hints at a general acceptance of this set of criteria. On the other hand, the particularities of the sports world might require additional, or a more nuanced set of criteria. Often, more than one actor is responsible for a sport-related human rights abuse. This means that ideally multiple parallel procedures should be made available. In addition, due to the temporary nature of mega-sporting events, mechanisms should be capable of addressing and solving cases in a speedy and timely manner.

IOC’s Reporting Tool for Press Freedom Violations

Before the Summer Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, the IOC introduced a reporting tool for journalists and media representatives to file a complaint concerning violations of press freedom. The mechanism is intended for those working on Olympic Games-related coverage. In an online form, complainants can fill in their details and information on what happened and upload evidence if applicable. The IOC conducts a first assessment of whether there are “strong grounds for accepting that a press violation may have occurred in the context of the Games”. If that is the case, relevant stakeholders, such as internal IOC departments or the respective Local Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, will be consulted as the next step. . No further information is provided on the exact content or outcome of such consultation.

FIFA’s Complaints Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Media Representatives

FIFA launched a similar tool in May 2018. Under FIFA’s complaint mechanism for human rights defenders and media representatives, those who consider their rights have been violated while performing work related to FIFA’s activities can file a complaint. Just like with the IOC reporting tool, complaints can be submitted through the online form. The complainant first has to categorize, then describe the incident as much as possible. This may include evidence if applicable, and an explanation of how what happened relates to FIFA and its activities. Furthermore, the complainant can indicate whether he or she is in immediate danger and suggest measures FIFA can take to address the situation. After receiving a complaint, FIFA ensures it is being redirected so that appropriate follow-up processes can be applied (para. 14). Such processes can entail direct engagement with third parties involved, such as public authorities. Moreover, FIFA promises to use its leverage, and seek help from relevant organisations and institutions with the mandate to promote and protect human rights defenders during these processes.

Reporting Tools as Effective Remedies?

It is remarkable that both tools appear easily accessible. The online forms are available in multiple languages (English, French, German and Spanish for the FIFA mechanism; English and French for the IOC tool). In addition to the online form, FIFA allows for complaints to be communicated through generic FIFA email addresses, bilateral exchanges with FIFA, or via the media. Other important features are that both provide an option for confidentiality. The IOC claims that the complainant’s identity will not be shared with persons beyond those dealing with the complaint without explicit consent. With regard to the FIFA mechanism, it is even possible to submit complaints anonymously.

However, the scope of these mechanisms is limited, in particular that of the IOC, as it only addresses Olympic Games-related issues. For all non-Games related complaints, the IOC recommends to contact the Committee to Protect Journalists. Moreover, whether any of these mechanisms can lead to an outcome that can be perceived as a remedy is questionable. Both mechanisms merely provide for redirection of the complaint to adequate follow-up processes, but it is not specified what these follow-up processes could be. Therefore, they arguably fail to provide for remedies as understood in the UNGPs. The closest thing to a remedy might be FIFA’s promise to issue a public statement in support of human rights defenders and media representatives and their work (para. 15), which can be a form of satisfaction for the victim. However, actual remedies depend on the steps FIFA takes and the follow-up processes that apply after FIFA redirected the complaint.

A Flower in the ‘Remedy Bouquet’

Apart from the actual website on which these mechanisms are made available, and short statements by FIFA and the IOC on the occasion of their launch, not much information is available on these mechanisms, let alone how they work in practice. Even though FIFA promised to communicate summaries of specific cases, up to this point, little is known about how often and for what kind of cases they have been used, or what the outcome was. Some information can be retrieved from the Update Statement of FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board, which summarised FIFA’s efforts in relation to the situation of Mr Simonov, who has been detained following his research on World Cup construction sites. The summary reveals that FIFA raised his situation with the Local Organizing Committee at the highest levels and showed interest in his personal safety by attending his court hearings. However, the general lack of information makes it difficult to assess for what kind of cases they can be effective. For instance, whether or not they could have been used to challenge the recent detention of members of the activist group ‘Pussy Riots’ following their pitch invasion at the 2018 World Cup final, is not clear.

Nevertheless, reporting tools in general can form an essential part of the “bouquet of remedies” promoted by the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. They can help to flag issues in the first place and to provide and uncover valuable information on a certain instance, before adequate and effective remedy mechanisms are activated. For this function to be fulfilled, links need to be created between the various existing mechanisms. Overall, providing avenues for human rights defenders and media representatives to file complaints is a positive development. However, this does not change the fact that these sports organizations choose to allow countries with questionable human rights records and publicly known violations of press freedom to host their events, thus knowingly creating even greater human rights risks.


The Colombian National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights: from Regional Milestone to Effective Local Implementation

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It is a pleasure to welcome Germán Zarama on Rights as Usual. Germán is a Senior Researcher at the Regional Representation of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (CREER-IHRB). He is a lawyer and holds an M.A in International Relations (University of Bologna), specialized in Public Management for Development (IADB)). He can be contacted on zarama.german@gmail.com or on Twitter @germanzarama. This post is his.

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On December 9, 2015, Colombia adopted a National Action Plan on Human Rights and Business (NAP), as a three-year public policy instrument that focuses on harmonizing protection and guarantee of human rights with economic development. It was the first South American, and indeed the first non-European, State to do so.

This was a milestone in a region where human rights defenders, many of whom work on business and human rights issues, are under serious threat. The adoption of Colombia’s NAP is also remarkable because it occurred at the same time as the historic Peace Agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was being negotiated. The peace process used conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies where private actors were meant to play an important role. Reconciling this process with a plan on business and human rights thus represented an important challenge.

As we are approaching the end of the three-year period and the Government recently released a Follow up to the NAP - Second Report 2017-2018 (available in Spanish), this blog post reviews progress and remaining challenges.

Background

In 2011, the Colombian Government set up the National System of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in order to “coordinate rules, policies, entities and institutions at the national and territorial levels and thus promote the respect and guarantee of human rights and the application of international humanitarian law”. They also established an inter-governmental Working Group whose function was to provide an inter-agency space to address issues that link businesses to human rights. The aim was to build a public policy on the subject, and coordinate effective actions among the competent entities.

The National System led to the adoption of a Comprehensive Public Policy for Human Rights in 2013, followed in 2014 by the Human Rights National Strategy for 2014-2034. The NAP was adopted within this framework.

NAP’s Achievements

  • An Inter-Institutional Working Group on Human Rights and Business and an Advisory Commission were set up and have held several meetings (5 in the last year alone). They are important forums for discussion and can provide advice.
  • Face-to-face training was offered, and freely accessible virtual training platforms in business and human rights were developed, thanks to joint work between international stakeholders, the government, and civil society.
  • To encourage the corporate due diligence process, different context documents were developed and made available to businesses that operate, or are going to start operations, in the country, so that they have enough information about the human rights situation, with emphasis on local risks.
  • Finally, the Government is promoting a human rights and peace agenda within the business sector (as part of the Peace Agreement implementation) where the goals of the NAP are aligned with the objectives and contents of post-conflict strategies such as the Development Programs with Territorial Approach (PDETs) and intervention in Areas Most Affected by the Conflict (ZOMAC), both fundamental for the development of vulnerable territories. This involves the promotion of responsible business activity in post-conflict zones.

Remaining Challenges

  • Business and human rights matter require a solid articulation between national and local policies. Although there has been progress on this point, there are few policies at the level of small or intermediate cities. The NAP is still not known in many cases and it is necessary to generate awareness about it.
  • Strengthening the conditions of security for social leaders working on issues of business and human rights is probably the greatest and most serious challenge. Since the Peace Agreement was signed, more than 330 human rights defenders were assassinated.
  • There is still a lot of work to be done to guarantee effective judicial and non-judicial remedy mechanisms. Despite having a mapping and an initial proposal (prepared by the Regional Centre for Responsible Business – CREER, regional representation of the Institute for Human Rights and Business) the judicial sector has not yet activated the routes necessary to deal with business and human rights cases. To make this happen, the Ministry of Justice needs to strengthen national policies on both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.

Conclusion

The Colombian NAP was adopted at a particularly delicate time for the country. Colombia has been experimenting with different transition mechanisms that seek to establish peace conditions in the regions that historically have been affected by the armed conflict. In this context, it is worth highlighting the progress that the human rights and business policy has made possible, and the large number of actors that have joined the discussions and started to work on implementation actions.

However, especially in conflict regions, more concrete actions are needed, as there are still conflicts directly or indirectly associated with business activity. Many community-based organizations have indicated it is time for change. They call for the NAP to be strengthened, which probably means moving from a voluntary to a binding approach regarding business commitments, especially in matters such as the protection of human rights defenders.


Conference – Spain’s First National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights

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It is a pleasure to welcome Carmen Márquez Carrasco and Laura Íñigo Álvarez on Rights as Usual. Carmen Márquez Carrasco is Professor of Public International Law and International Relations at the University of Seville. Her research focuses on business and human rights, the interactions between IHL and human rights, and the EU and human rights. Laura Íñigo Álvarez is a PhD candidate in International Law at the University of Seville and Utrecht University. Her research focuses on IHL, accountability, and non-state actors. This post is theirs.

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On 14-15 June 2018, the University of Seville, under the direction of Professor Márquez Carrasco, will hold a conference on the first Spanish Action Plan on Business and Human Rights . The Spanish Action Plan on Business and Human Rights was adopted on 28 July 2017 by the Council of Ministers of the Government of Spain three years after the plan was first drafted. Spain becomes the 14th country approving a National Action Plan (NAP) on this issue.

Potential of the National Action Plan

 The NAP represents the Spanish model of implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which has been also promoted within the framework of the European Union. This first plan has limitations but also potentialities that can be strengthened through its effective implementation. We can highlight three positive effects of the NAP. First, it can help to overcome the differences in access and power that often prevent those who are negatively affected by the activity of corporations from demanding a place at the negotiating table. Secondly, this instrument can contribute to creating a dialogue between all areas of government and could give impetus to new ideas within different government sectors that consider the issue of business and human rights to be of little relevance. Third, the NAP can assist in the creation of a progressive agenda for the protection and promotion of human rights. By generating public accountability incorporating benchmarks in the processes, and ultimately pointing to specific measures, the Spanish NAP establishes a framework of reference to assess progress in the implementation of the obligation to protect human rights against business operations.

What is the conference about?

At the conference, experts in the field will analyse and discuss the challenges and opportunities that the NAP poses to Spain, its public administrations, businesses, civil society and citizens. The aim of this conference is to assess the implementation of the plan and formulate proposals for its improvement. The keynote speech will be given by Mr. Juan Ignacio Morro Villacián, General Director of the UN and Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain. The first day will be dedicated to the follow-up of the NAP; its relationship with the SDGs; environmental issues; business operations in conflict situations; judicial and non-judicial remedies; and gender issues. The second day will deal with the NAP and public procurement; lessons learned at the European level; and some experiences presented by corporations themselves. The event will conclude with the closing speech of Mr. Mikel Mancisidor de la Fuente, member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Rapporteur for the General Observation on Science and Human Rights.

More information about the event (only in Spanish) can be found here.


Corporate Action and the Failings of the Jesner Decision

2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court_svgThis post is the sixth in the Jesner v Arab Bank special series on this blog. Previous posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

It is a pleasure to welcome Dr Tara Van Ho (@TaraVanHo) on Rights as Usual. Tara is a lecturer in law at the University of Essex. Her research focuses on business and human rights. More information can be found here. This post is hers.

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One needn’t get very far into the Jesner decision before it is apparent exactly how the US Supreme Court was going to rule. Like most #bizhumanrights scholars, I knew the outcome before I even found the first page of the judgment thanks to Twitter. But the outcome of the case is also clear by the end of page 2 when Justice Anthony Kennedy described the question before the Court as this:

“Petitioners contend that international and domestic laws impose responsibility and liability on a corporation if its human agents use the corporation to commit crimes in violation of international laws that protect human rights. … The Court must first ask whether the law of nations imposes liability on corporations for human-rights violations committed by its employees. The Court must also ask whether it has authority and discretion in an [Alien Tort Statute (ATS)] suit to impose liability on a corporation without a specific direction from Congress to do so.”

 Kennedy comes back to the point later in a portion of the decision that is joined only by Justices Roberts and Thomas:

“It is also true, of course, that natural persons can and do use corporations for sinister purposes, including conduct that violates international law. That the corporate form can be an instrument for inflicting grave harm and suffering poses serious and complex questions both for the international community and for Congress.(p. 24).

The Court that found corporations have the right to freedom of religion because their shareholders do was now portraying corporations as inanimate objects used to do evil, rather than organizations capable of evil themselves.

Jesner is the corporate accountability equivalent of that ubiquitous American saying that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” And just as the NRA’s propagandist slogan is inaccurate and incomplete, so is the Court’s portrayal of (1) human rights law, (2) the nature of customary international law, and (3) the need for corporate liability in international law. I’ll treat each of these this week, but split them between posts here (the need for corporate liability in international law) and the Essex Human Rights Centre blog.

The Corporation: Tool or Cause?

The problem with Kennedy’s approach is that often the corporation is not a tool for doing evil but is the reason for doing evil . While it is easy to assume that bad leaders undertake bad decisions for bad purposes, and the rest of the corporation is just caught up in the process, decades of studies in the areas of organizational psychology and behavioural psychology indicate that this is generally not how it works. Instead, the leaders can make bad decisions specifically because they are serving the corporate interest, rather than their own morality.

We know that people make different decisions because of the ‘hat’ or role they play. This was most disturbingly demonstrated in the Stanford prison experiments, but it has been verified by other research. Individuals make decisions differently when they are in their ‘work’ role and when they are acting in their personal role.

We also know that the conditions within the corporate structure can motivate either positive or negative ethical behaviour. This environment at the top of a corporation can influence how any individual leader at the top of the corporation acts – even to the point of encouraging managers to take decisions in their professional capacity that they would never make in their personal capacity so as to serve the organizational culture.

Once the conditions within the corporation are set at the top levels, it is likely to carry down throughout the corporation and influence decisions even when individuals would not make those decisions on their own accord. The ‘Milgram experiment’ receives a great deal of attention for demonstrating clearly that seemingly ‘good’ average people will follow orders to torture other human beings if they are ordered to do so by an authority figure. The fact that they are torturing people – and can hear the person scream – rarely has an impact on their choice to continue the torture. Instead, the direction of the person in a position of authority carries more weight than their own personal morality.

The Need for Corporate Accountability

Given the findings of organizational and behavioural psychology, it is important that judges and policy makers recognize that at times the corporate structure is not simply a tool but can be a cause of criminal conduct. When a company has a repeated history of ignoring the negative impacts it has on the societies in which it operates – regardless of who is at the top of the corporate structure, regardless of changes in personnel – then we need to consider that it is the corporation and not the individuals within the corporation that is responsible for the misdeed.

At the Essex Human Rights Centre blog, I’ll address the problems with Kennedy confusing international human rights law and international criminal law – and finding that the Alien Tort Statute cannot be applied to human rights claims against corporations because international criminal tribunals do not have jurisdiction over corporations (an issue Alessandra De Tommaso raised well in her contribution to this blog).

Kennedy’s opinion shows not just a fundamental misunderstanding of international law, but also of how corporations and corporate environments work. In doing so, he missed or misrepresented the fundamental question of corporate claims: how do we hold the institution accountable for its institutional failures? By assuming corporations are a tool and not the cause, Kennedy shields fundamentally broken organizations from responsibility and suggests instead that it is the individuals within the company – rather than the company itself – that should bear the burden for conduct that breaches international law.

A Current Development to Follow

Kennedy is not alone in his approach. In fact, for civil law states this was long a barrier to corporate criminal accountability. But civil law states are increasingly embracing corporate criminal accountability. This trajectory needs to continue, and there currently is a rare opportunity to push for clearer accountability for corporations.

The International Law Commission and states are currently debating the proposed International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Humanity. The current draft proposal states that:

Subject to the provisions of its national law, each State shall take measures, where appropriate, to establish the liability of legal persons for the offences referred to in this draft article. Subject to the legal principles of the State, such liability of legal persons may be criminal, civil or administrative.”

This approach is more honest about the factual realities that cause corporate criminal conduct than what we currently have in international criminal law. It recognizes that it is not simply the individuals who commit the wrong, but that at times a corporation commits its own breaches. It is not a tool; it is the cause. This is a significant development – one that those of us working on business and human rights should follow and support – and should give us hope that Jesner will eventually be a blip on the path to real and reality-based corporate accountability.


Jesner v. Arab Bank : quand l’originalisme américain marche sur la tête

2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court_svgCette contribution est la cinquième de la série consacrée à Jesner v Arab Bank sur ce blog. Les autres contributions (en Anglais) sont ici, ici, ici et ici.

C’est avec plaisir que j’accueille Paul Lorentz sur Rights as Usual. Paul est étudiant dans le Master 2 Droits de l’Homme, Sécurité et Développement  à la faculté de droit de l’Université catholique de Lille (France) où j’enseigne un cours “business and human rights” en Anglais. Cette contribution est la sienne.

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Mardi 24 avril 2018, la Cour Suprême des États-Unis rendait sa très attendue décision Jesner v. Arab Bank, qui a sans nul doute à peine commencé à faire couler l’encre des commentateurs juridiques.

Les faits sont simples : les requérants affirmaient que des officiels de l’Arab Bank, basée en Jordanie, avaient participé au financement de groupes terroristes au Moyen Orient, à tout le moins en permettant l’utilisation de la banque pour transférer les fonds. Ces fonds auraient transité électroniquement, notamment par le biais de la filiale de la banque à New York. Les requérants se sont alors basés sur l’Alien Tort Statute (ATS) pour chercher à engager la responsabilité de la banque jordanienne pour financement du terrorisme, qui a porté par-là atteinte à leurs droits humains (droit à la vie, prohibition des traitements inhumains et dégradants). Si la Cour avait déjà affirmé dans sa décision Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell (2013) qu’en l’absence de tout lien avec le territoire des États-Unis, du fait de la présomption d’inapplicabilité extraterritoriale de la législation domestique, les Cours américaines n’avaient pas compétence pour traiter du litige (sauf circonstances exceptionnelles touchant particulièrement le territoire des Etats-Unis), elle avait toutefois soigneusement évité de se prononcer sur la question des corporations étrangères et de leur responsabilité du fait de leurs filiales aux Etats-Unis.

La question qui se posait alors était de savoir si une juridiction américaine avait l’autorité et le pouvoir nécessaire afin d’imposer une responsabilité à une corporation sans que le Congrès n’ait donné d’instructions précises à cet effet.  Pour nier l’existence d’une compétence des Cours domestiques sur des corporations internationales basées à l’étranger, la Cour Suprême a utilisé principalement 3 arguments :

(a)  le manque d’une norme reconnue de responsabilité des personnes privées morales en droit international (faisant ainsi la confusion entre caractère normatif et justiciabilité) ;

(b)  un argument pour le moins douteux sur les possibles conséquences d’un « effet boomerang » sur les investissements américains à l’étranger (affirmant que nier la responsabilité des corporations pouvait en fait, sur le tableau général, aboutir à une amélioration de la situation des droits humains en ôtant des freins au développement) ;

(c) enfin, la partie dont il sera question dans cette contribution, l’intention initiale des rédacteurs.

Classiquement, deux options s’ouvraient à elle pour interpréter l’ATS, entre les conceptions originaliste et téléologique. Sans surprise dans la configuration actuelle de la Cour Suprême américaine, l’interprétation par référence aux intentions initiales du législateur a prévalu. L’objet de ce commentaire n’est pas de discuter des avantages de l’une ou l’autre des méthodes d’interprétation, mais plutôt de critiquer la rigidité avec laquelle la première a été appliquée, risquant d’aboutir très exactement à l’effet inverse de celui qui était recherché.

Dans Jesner, la Cour poursuit en fait le raisonnement qu’elle avait déjà initié dans Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004), en affirmant que l’intention lors de la rédaction de l’ATS en 1789 était de prévenir des incidents diplomatiques. L’idée aurait alors été de s’assurer qu’un recours était ouvert aux potentiels requérants étrangers, afin de garantir l’existence d’un forum permettant la résolution des litiges mettant en jeu les intérêts d’un ressortissant étranger. Si l’interprétation de l’ATS l’amenait en fait à donner compétence aux Cours nationales sur des personnes morales étrangères, à travers leurs filiales aux Etats-Unis, cela pouvait avoir, comme dans la présente affaire, de sérieuses conséquences sur les relations diplomatiques entre les deux États, ce qui serait contraire à l’intention initiale des rédacteurs.

De fait, une décision aux potentielles répercussions diplomatiques importantes n’est pas dénuée de tout caractère politique. C’est l’argument qui a ici prévalu, en affirmant que le mandat d’interprétation conféré au juge ne permet pas de s’éloigner à tel point de l’intention initiale des rédacteurs qu’il aboutisse à un résultat diamétralement opposé à celui initialement recherché. Selon la Cour, il aurait donc fallu une autorisation positive du législateur.

Toutefois, la déduction de l’intention ne s’est pas faite sans quelques approximations significatives. Comme l’a très bien souligné l’opinion dissidente menée par le Juge Sotomayor, le texte (« The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. ») peut être éclairé sous plusieurs dimensions. Le choix de la majorité s’est ici porté sur une interprétation minimaliste, soutenant en fait que ce qui n’est pas affirmé ne peut pas être déduit. L’objectif affirmé est d’assurer un pouvoir discrétionnaire du juge minimum, qui n’a reçu ni le mandat ni la légitimité nécessaires pour exercer un pouvoir décisionnaire effectif.

Mais en appliquant un contrôle aussi strict, le juge américain est sans doute tombé dans l’excès inverse. Faire le choix de ne lire le texte de l’ATS que dans sa version minimale, est en lui-même politisé. La sélection des faits connexes éclairant la détermination de l’intention originelle a, sinon biaisé, du moins orienté la décision de la Cour. La majorité a ici choisi de ne considérer qu’une série d’évènements historiques qui, s’ils ont mené à la rédaction de l’ATS, n’englobent pas nécessairement l’entièreté des motifs et objectifs qui y ont présidé. La majorité a ici complètement ignoré le choix délibéré des termes « law of nations », concept évolutif depuis sa naissance, ou encore celui de définir un critère pour l’une des parties (le requérant), mais laissant un vide concernant le défendant. Si le législateur avait voulu strictement restreindre les normes applicables, ou la qualité de défendant, il avait alors toute latitude pour le faire.  Même en admettant que l’intention originelle était uniquement de permettre un forum de résolution des litiges internationaux, limiter la portée de l’ATS aux personnes physiques aurait même une tendance à aboutir à un raisonnement assez absurde selon lequel elles seules peuvent causer des tensions diplomatiques.

Ne pas même mentionner ces choix négatifs pour déterminer son intention, c’est tout autant infantiliser le législateur que de l’interpréter avec la plus grande liberté. Pour pouvoir utilement et légitimement se référer à la doctrine originaliste, il aurait fallu que l’intention soit déterminée avec un degré suffisant de certitude, que la Cour n’a pas même évoqué ici. Si l’on souhaite faire une très large part au législateur, alors la cohérence aurait appelé une analyse rigoureuse, un examen approfondi de ses motivations, qui n’ont pas été valablement conduits ici. L’objet n’est pas de critiquer la validité d’une réserve si les conséquences politiques sont importantes, mais de souligner le besoin d’une cohérence dans son application.

De Charybde, la Cour est finalement tombée en Scylla. En cherchant à éviter l’écueil du gouvernement des juges, elle a finalement pris l’eau de l’autre bord. A trop se refuser à interpréter, elle a finalement interprété négativement.


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