The admissibility of evidence before the International Court of Justice

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Annotation. Article briefly outlines the main points on admissibility of documentary evidence before the International Court of Justice, emphasizing on estimating illicitly-obtained evidence. The dilemma will be showed through public international law rules and precedents of the International Court of Justice.

Key words: International Court of Justice, admissibility, illicitly-obtained evidence, probative value.

At the beginning, I would like to emphasize that the practical approach in estimating concrete evidence by the respected Court is always an evaluating concept. The rule of thumb in this regard is flexibility. For years of practice, the Court evaluates the authenticity, reliability, and persuasiveness of the materials submitted by the parties. At the admissibility stage the evidence is required to be prima facie credible, that is, it must have sufficient indicia of reliability and authenticity to establish that it appears to show what it is offered to prove. Similar approach in estimating concrete evidence is outlined in the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules (art. 27(4)) which deliberates that “the arbitral tribunal shall determine the admissibility, relevance, materiality and weight of the evidence offered”.[1]

As an additional source of admissibility options for the Court may be an IBA Rules on the Taking of Evidence in International Arbitration. Article 9 provides identical criteria of evidence to be checked as well as reasons under which the Tribunal shall exclude evidence both at the request of a Party or in its own motion. Among those reasons are (a) lack of sufficient relevance to the case or materiality to its outcome; (f) grounds of special political or institutional sensitivity (including evidence that has been classified as secret by a government or a public international institution) that the Arbitral Tribunal determines to be compelling.[2]

Generally, the international law rules are very broad in interpreting evidence; the case-to-case practice of the ICJ reveals its uncertainty and differentiation. Therefore, the ICJ has admitted documents into holding that the offering party must demonstrate, with clarity and specificity, where and how each document or record fits into its case. The only rule of inadmissibility output under the Article 48 and 52 of the Statute of the Court[3] and accordingly Article 56 of the Rules of the Court[4], and claims about production of documents after fixed time-limits, or written proceedings. To make it clear, the procedure before the Court consists of two parts: written and oral. The written proceedings shall consist of the communication to the Court and to the parties of memorials, counter-memorials and, if necessary, replies; also all papers and documents in support (Article 43 of the Statute). The oral proceedings shall consist of the hearing by the Court of witnesses, experts, agents, counsel, and advocates (Article 43 of the Statute). Simultaneously, the ICJ may prescribe any fixed-time limits to the Parties in order to do necessary actions, but the peremptory rule is that every evidence which the party considers it proper to submit must be handed to the Court before the expiry of written proceedings (exceptions may be only if The ICJ decided it indispensable).

Turning to the admissibility of evidence, Peter Tomka (former President of the ICJ February 2012- 2015) pointed out that the Court allowed parties to submit pretty much any form or type of evidence, with the caveat that the Court had unfettered freedom to weigh it against the circumstances of each case, and by reference to relevant international legal rules.  However, unlawfully obtained proof was one instance where evidence was inadmissible.

As Malcolm Shaw noted, evidence which has been illegally or improperly acquired may also be taken into account, although no doubt where this happens its probative value would be adjusted accordingly.[5] The judicial practice of the ICJ and other international Tribunals has also concluded exclusive precedents for the inadmissibility of evidence presented to the Court. In the Oil Platforms case[6], the Court was more dismissive in treating public reports as evidence. The US, attempting to prove that the Sea Isle City was attacked by Iran, relied, inter alia, on public sources that reported that Iran was responsible for an armed attack. The Court explained that it decided to disregard this circumstantial evidence because the Court has no knowledge of the original source, and that it was possible that “widespread reports of a fact” may in actuality “derive from a single source”.

Thus, in The Oil Platforms case, the Court concluded that numerous reports had no greater value than the original source, and these reports could not substitute to direct evidence.

In the Application of the Genocide Convention decision the Court stated about the value of reports emanating from official or independent bodies and outlined three variable factors.[7] Firstly, the Court examines the source of the evidence for partiality. Exempli gratia, in Armed Activities, the Court found press and radio reports unreliable. Secondly, the Court considers the process by which the particular evidence has been obtained. E.g., the Court preferably gives greater weight to a report which is a product of a careful, judicial-like process. Finally, the Court evaluates the quality or the character of the evidence.

This decision shows that circumstantial evidence – newspaper articles or publications on the websites – shall be treated as unreliable reports because of its partiality.

One of the prominent cases that changed the way of considering illegally-obtained documents before the ICJ was the Iranian Hostages case[8] of 1980. The Iranian Government relied on a stable precedent with the Corfu Channel case decided by the ICJ, and predicted the same outcome when challenging evidence and a phenomenon of self-help.[9] Instead, the Court showed different approach: it decided unanimously that Iran “must immediately place in the hands of the Protecting power the premises, property, archives and documents of the United States Embassy in Tehran and of its Consulates in Iran”, and, by the same token, the implication would appear to be that evidence would not be admissible.

Furthermore, approaching to the contentious question of the WikiLeaks documents and their admissibility in the Courts, The Trial Chamber of The Special Tribunal for Lebanon upheld several definitive decisions. According to the Defence, the WikiLeaks documents are admissible as evidence as they furnish the necessary indicia of reliability. Admissibility of the WikiLeaks documents was confirmed by the fact that they have been extensively published in, for example, The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde. On that matter, The Trial Chamber is not satisfied that the documents “profess to be in origin and authorship” and declines that references to such external sources [newspaper articles] do not demonstrate authenticity.[10] For these reasons, the Trial Chamber denied the Defence motion to admit into evidence two WikiLeaks documents.

Herein, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon revealed two grounds for exclusion of certain evidence.[11] In the Article 162 (A) of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, it points on: “No evidence shall be admissible if obtained by methods which cast substantial doubt on its reliability or if its admission is antithetical to, and would seriously damage, the integrity of the proceedings”.

Thus, we can conclude that there is a malleable approach to the question of admissibility of evidence before the ICJ, and it is apparently that the ICJ is subjective regarding each evidence produced by the Parties, however it gives a special attention to that sort of evidence which were illegally-obtained and challenges every concrete evidence in terms of their compliance with reliability, authenticity and accuracy criteria.

Bibliography

  1. Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (US v. Iran), 1980, Judgment, ICJ Report 1
  2. Decision on the Admissibility of Documents published on the WikiLeaks website, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, 21 May 2015, pp. 11-12
  3. IBA Rules on the Taking of Evidence in International Arbitration, International Bar Association, 29 May 2010, pp. 19-20
  4. Halink Simone, All things considered: how the International Court of Justice delegated its fact-assessment to the United Nations in the Armed Activities Case, p. 23
  5. Malcolm N. Shaw, International law, (5 edn, 2003), p. 956
  6. Reisman W. Michael and Freedman Eric, The Plaintiff’s Dilemma: Illegally Obtained Evidence and Admissibility in International Adjudication, 1982, p. 749
  7. Rules of Court (1978), Part III, Section C, Subsection 3, Article 56, para 1
  8. Statute of the ICJ, Chapter III (Procedure), Articles 48, 52
  9. The Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. USA), Judgment, ICJ Reports 2003, p. 161
  10. The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, UN Commission on International Trade Law, 2011, p. 19

[1] The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, UN Commission on International Trade Law, 2011, p. 19

[2] IBA Rules on the Taking of Evidence in International Arbitration, International Bar Association, 29 May 2010, pp. 19-20

[3] Statute of the ICJ, Chapter III (Procedure), Articles 48, 52

[4] Rules of Court (1978), Part III, Section C, Subsection 3, Article 56, para 1

[5] Malcolm N. Shaw, International law, (5 edn, 2003), p. 956

[6] The Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. USA), Judgment, ICJ Reports 2003, p. 161

[7] Halink Simone, All things considered: how the International Court of Justice delegated its fact-assessment to the United Nations in the Armed Activities Case, p. 23

[8] Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (US v. Iran), 1980, Judgment, ICJ Report 1 [hereinafter Iranian Hostages case]

[9] Reisman W. Michael and Freedman Eric, The Plaintiff’s Dilemma: Illegally Obtained Evidence and Admissibility in International Adjudication, 1982, p. 749

[10] Decision on the Admissibility of Documents published on the WikiLeaks website, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, 21 May 2015, pp. 11-12

[11] Rules of Procedure and Evidence, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, 2009

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