From New Delhi to Rome (and Back) via Hamburg or The Hague: the Enrica Lexie Incident and the UNCLOS Dispute Settlement Mechanism
March 21, 2013 1 Comment
The recent decision of the Italian Government not to return two Italian marines to India for trial in connection with the killing of Indian fishermen is heightening tensions between Italy and India and is spawning an international diplomatic fallout. Since its inception, the case attracted much debate and conjecture, both by the media but also by specialized political and legal commentators. We have provided our point of view, for instance here and here. In essence, Italy and India disagree on who has jurisdiction to try the Italian marines. Each of their respective arguments is premised on international law, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as municipal law. India contends that it has jurisdiction to try the marines because (1) the victims were Indian nationals, (2) the victims were killed on an Indian ship and (3) the incident occurred within India’s Contiguous Zone, which extends beyond its territorial waters. For its part, Italy claims it has jurisdiction to try the pair because (1) they are Italian citizens; (2) they were deployed as a Vessel Protection Detachment on the Italian ship Enrica Lexie and (3) the incident occurred within international waters. Worthy of note is that both countries, separately but concurrently, have indeed initiated criminal proceedings against the marines before their internal judicial systems.
Recently, the Italian government formally clarified that since the issuing of the Indian Supreme Court decision in January 2013 in this matter, indicating that the marines shall be tried by a special chamber set up within the Indian judicial system, it has pursued the cooperation of the Indian government under Articles 100 and 283 of UNCLOS for a settlement of this matter under international law. From a formal point of view, therefore, the actions of the Italian government are an attempt to bring the question of which State has jurisdiction to try the marines within the legal framework of UNCLOS provisions related to the settlement of disputes.
UNCLOS builds on the commitment by all United Nations Members States to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security are not endangered. In particular, one of the main characteristic of UNCLOS and its dispute settlement system is the possibility for a State Party to unilaterally trigger the compulsory and binding jurisdiction of certain judicial institutions for the resolutions of such disputes. Given UNCLOS comprehensive reach, the range of controversies subject to resolution varies, and includes issues relevant to seabed and maritime delimitation, navigation, fisheries and the environment, etc.
Part XV of UNCLOS requires States Parties to first attempt to settle any dispute between them by peaceful means and seek a solution in compliance with the United Nations Charter (Articles 279-280). Importantly, States Parties can agree to seek the settlement of the dispute by peaceful means of their own choice (Article 281), including recourse to general, regional or bilateral agreements (Article 282). Parties also have an obligation to exchange views on the possible settlement (Article 283) and can decide to submit the dispute to a non-binding conciliation (Article 284). Where, however, no settlement has been reached, UNCLOS stipulates that the dispute must be submitted at the request of either party to the dispute to a court or tribunal having jurisdiction in this regard (Article 286). The relevant rules contained in Part XV of UNCLOS are quite complex and foresee the possibility of seeking relief before different fora, depending on the subject matter of the controversy, also setting forth a series of exceptions and opt-outs. With regard to controversies akin to that concerning the Enrica Lexie incident, Article 287 of UNCLOS defines available courts or tribunals as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg (ITLOS), or the International Court of Justice, in the Hague (ICJ). In ratifying the UNCLOS, Italy already declared its acceptance of the jurisdiction of either of these institutions as binding, while India reserved its rights to any such declaration. Alternatively, the parties might choose to refer the unsettled dispute to an ad hoc arbitral tribunal. A Party to a dispute not covered by a declaration in force shall be deemed to have accepted arbitration. If the parties to a dispute have not accepted the same procedure for the settlement of the dispute, this may be submitted to arbitration unless the Parties otherwise agree. Finally, any decision rendered by a court or tribunal having jurisdiction over the dispute shall be final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute (Article 296).
Arguably, the positions of the two States on this matter have not been more discordant. Italy’s sudden decision not to return its marines to India is premised on a change in circumstances following the perceived lack of cooperation by the Indian authorities in resolving the dispute in accordance with international law. This in itself is considered by the Italian government as a dispute on the scope of application of UNCLOS. The Indian government, on the other hand, has reacted strongly and called the Italian decision “unacceptable”. The Indian Supreme Court is currently precluding the Italian Ambassador, who acted as a guarantor for the return of the marines to India, from leaving the country. While it is unclear whether the Italian Ambassador has any immediate intention to leave India, the Indian Supreme Court should be cognizant of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) which provides in Article 29 that the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. The Indian Supreme Court appears to misconstrue the Italian ambassador as a personal guarantor for the return of the marines, rather than a diplomatic agent of the Italian government. The two states maintain irreconcilable positions. India needs Italy to return the marines back on its soil to eventually commence a meaningful trial before its courts, while Italy needs India to comply with its international rogatory requests to complete its investigations into the matter, thus relaxing the jurisdictional dispute by bringing the marines to trial before its own courts.
The recent adjudication by the International Court of Justice in the Hissène Habré case provides useful guidance on the expected complexities of instances where the Parties cannot agree to settle their differences. The judgment of the Court in this case, particularly the findings concerning its admissibility, reveals several years of diplomatic exchanges between Belgium, which petitioned the Court, and Senegal, which was accused of neither prosecuting nor extraditing Mr. Habré, the former President of Chad, based on violations of the Convention Against Torture. The ICJ decision in Habre includes, in the first place, lengthy discussions on whether a disagreement occurred among the Parties, whether this could not be settled by them and whether the jurisdiction of the Court had been triggered.
Paradoxically, the divergences between Italy and India might facilitate recourse to compulsory jurisdiction with ITLOS or the ICJ. The route between New Delhi and Rome in the resolution of the Enrica Lexie incident therefore might pass through Hamburg or The Hague. The voyage is far from clear and it will continue to be a perilous one.