Friday 27 February 2015

World Court decision prompts UK and USA to agree to neutral venue trial

[Seventeen years ago today the International Court of Justice (the “World Court”) ruled against the United Kingdom and the United States in cases raised against them by Libya arising out of their demands that Megrahi and Fhimah should be surrendered for trial in either Scotland or the United States. Here is what I wrote in an article headed “The Lockerbie Disaster” published in (1999) 3 Edinburgh Law Review 85-95:]

On 27 November 1991 the Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States each issued a statement calling upon the Libyan Government to hand over the two accused to either the Scottish or the American authorities for trial.  Requests for their extradition were transmitted to the Government of Libya by diplomatic channels.  No extradition treaties are in force between Libya on the one hand and the United Kingdom and United States on the other.

Libyan internal law, in common with the laws of many countries in the world, does not permit the extradition of its own nationals for trial overseas.  The Government of Libya accordingly contended that the affair should be resolved through the application of the provisions of the 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation, to which all three Governments are signatories.  Under article 7 of that Convention a state in whose territory persons accused of terrorist offences against aircraft are resident has a choice aut dedere aut judicare, either to hand over the accused for trial in the courts of the state bringing the accusation or to take the steps necessary to have the accused brought trial in its own domestic courts.  In purported compliance with the second of these options, the Libyan authorities arrested the two accused and appointed a Supreme Court judge as examining magistrate to consider the evidence and prepare the case against them.  Not entirely surprisingly, perhaps, the UK and US Governments have refused to make available to the examining magistrate the evidence that they claim to have amassed against the accused who, to this day, remain under house arrest.

The United Nations Security Council first became involved in the Lockerbie affair  on 21 January 1992 when it passed Resolution 731 strongly deploring the Government of Libya's lack of co-operation in the matter and urging it to respond to the British and American requests contained in their statements of 27 November 1991.  This was followed by Security Council Resolution 748 (31 March 1992) requiring Libya to comply with the requests within a stipulated period of time, failing which a list of sanctions specified in the Resolution would be imposed.  Compliance was not forthcoming and the sanctions duly came into  effect.  On 11 November 1993 the Security Council, by Resolution 883, further extended the range and application of the sanctions.  The imposition of sanctions under the last two Resolutions was justified by the Security Council by reference to Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations on the basis that Libya's failure to extradite the accused constituted a threat to peace.

On 3 March 1992 (after the passing of Security Council Resolution 731, but before Resolutions 748 and 883), Libya presented applications to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for declarations that she was entitled under Article 7 of the 1971 Montreal Convention to put the accused on trial in Libya and that the United Kingdom and the United States were in breach of their obligations under that Convention in insisting upon trial in the UK or the USA.  The Governments of the United Kingdom and United States sought to have these applications dismissed without a hearing on the merits on the grounds inter alia that (1) the ICJ had no jurisdiction to consider them and (2) the Security Council Resolutions of 31 March 1992 and 11 November 1993, imposing upon Libya an international obligation contended by the UK and the USA to be superior to that embodied in Article 7 of the Montreal Convention, had rendered the applications pointless.  On 27 February 1998 the judges of the ICJ by substantial majorities [RB: 13 to 3] (and with the American and British judges dissenting) rejected the submissions of the UK and the USA, thereby clearing the way for decisions at some time in the future on the merits of Libya's applications.

[RB: This judgement was followed within six months by the UK and US volte face whereby they agreed to a neutral venue trial. Here is what I wrote in the article mentioned above:]

For four years and seven months the Government of the United Kingdom (and that of the United States) consistently maintained that the "neutral venue" scheme proposed by the writer and accepted by the Libyan Government and defence lawyers in January 1994 was impossible, impracticable and inherently undesirable.  For a flavour of the strength and vehemence of the Government's opposition, the interested reader is referred to "The Lockerbie Trial"  1998 Scots Law Times (News) 9 by Lord Hardie, a response by the Lord Advocate to the present writer's "The Lockerbie Proposal" 1997 Scots Law Times (News) 304.

However, on 24 August 1998 the Governments of the United Kingdom and United States announced that they had reversed their stance on the matter.  In a letter of that date to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the Acting Permanent Representatives of the UK and the USA stated:

".... in the interest of resolving this situation in a way which will allow justice to be done, our Governments are prepared, as an exceptional measure, to arrange for the two accused to be tried before a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands.  After close consultation with the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, we are pleased to confirm that the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands has agreed to facilitate arrangements for such a court.  It would be a Scottish court and would follow normal Scots law and procedure in every respect except for the replacement of the jury by a panel of three Scottish High Court judges.  The Scottish rules of evidence and procedure, and all the guarantees of fair trial provided by the law of Scotland, would apply."

[RB: Once the trial and appeal at Camp Zeist were concluded, the World Court case brought by Libya was quietly dropped, to the enormous relief of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who were in fear and trembling that the court was going to recognise what would, in effect, have been a form of judicial review of the legality of the acts of the Security Council. And that would never do. Good heavens, it might have judicially prevented the invasion of Iraq!]

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