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Redefining Jus Cogens. An Insight into the International Law Commission’s Discourse on Peremptory Norms of General International Law

Ana Srovin Coralli (Master in International Law from the Graduate Institute (Geneva) and Master in Law from the Faculty of Law (Ljubljana); ana.srovin@graduateinstitute.ch) &

Christian Bukor (Master student in Law, European Faculty of Law (Nova Gorica); cbukor@gmail.com)


Three months have passed since the 70thannual session of the International Law Commission (ILC) came to its conclusion in August 2018.[1]Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that jus cogens was for the majority of the members, at least with respect to the meetings which took place in Geneva, the most intriguing topic scheduled on this year’s agenda. Indeed, the third report on peremptory norms of general international law, which resulted in 13 draft conclusions,[2]not only triggered significant interest from a great majority of the ILC members, but it also stimulated a vivid and provocative discussion among them.


Even though nowadays a special status of jus cogens in international law is beyond dispute, many controversies and disagreements surrounding the legal consequences and effects of peremptory norms still persist. Having this in mind, it is crystal clear that the Special Rapporteur Dire Tladi has been confronted with no easy task. Precisely because of the difficulty of the subject matter, it is important to note that the ILC members generally agreed on the quality of his third report, noting that it makes an important step forward in clarifying the consequences and the effects of the highest norms in international law.[3] This post provides a summary of the ILC’s discourse on the jus cogens debate in Geneva, with a focus on the most controversial aspects of the relevant report.


Overview of the report and the draft conclusions


At the outset, it should be explained that the ILC’s topics under consideration are mainly handled by the individual Special Rapporteurs, whose duties include the preparation of reports on the assigned topics and the proposition of draft conclusions, which could then potentially serve as guidelines or articles of a treaty. The present contribution will tackle both the newly-proposed draft conclusions on the topic of jus cogens and the yearly report of the Special Rapporteur on the same topic.


As a preliminary remark, it should be emphasized that the ILC generally promotes the idea of relying on the1969 Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties(VCLT) when preparing draft conclusions on the topic of jus cogens. It has been agreed among the members that this was respected by Mr. Tladi, as his report clearly takes the VCLT into account.[4]It would, however, be premature to conclude that no concern was raised by the ILC members during the debate on the subject. Recalling that the VCLT was drafted with a particular subject in mind, namely the law of treaties, some of the members warned that the Convention should be considered with caution when adopting a new set of rules on a different topic.[5] This approach seems more correct, as it stresses that international law is an evolving and flexible system, although consistency between legal documents remains crucially important in law. It is for this reason that the ILC should consider other relevant sources and take into account the development of international law over time.


Another issue raised during the debates was whether it is appropriate to focus on certain consequences and effects of jus cogens.[6]Specifically, some of the members were reluctant to support the explicit reference to the United Nations Security Council (SC) resolutions and certain issues concerning international criminal law.[7]Noting that such references might be selective and consequentially problematic, the majority of members refused to include it in the draft conclusions. In so doing, an opportunity was missed to explore the consequences of jus cogens more widely, including the implications of a conflict with SC resolutions, and the impact of peremptory norms in international criminal law. There is furthermore a need for an explicit stipulation affirming that any principle or rule established through any source of international law, including general principle of law, may not be valid if it is in contrast with a norm of jus cogens nature.


Specific issues on the table


The effect of jus cogens on treaty relations has been acknowledged as one of the most uncontroversial aspects of the third report.[8]In the eyes of the ILC members, the Special Rapporteur managed to prove the inherent nature and non-derogability of jus cogens norms. Therefore, all treaties must be consistent with these norms.[9]Nevertheless, the remaining matter of controversy is the general rule on the non-severability of treaty provisions, when a provision is part of a treaty which was in conflict with jus cogens at the time of its conclusion.[10]Whereas some of the members agreed on this matter, the stability of treaty relations was prioritized by others, who claimed that the general rule of severability would be preferable. By taking the latter approach, the rule of non-severability would be presented as a special rule for cases relating to article 53 of the VCLT, which would, in effect, result in the prioritization of treaty relations without departing from the VCLT.


Another interesting question on the recommended dispute settlement procedure in case of invalidity of a treaty because of a conflict with jus cogens was pointed out during the debates.[11]More precisely, doubt was raised as to the immediate consequences following a decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or by an arbitral tribunal; would such decision lead to the invalidation or termination of a treaty, or would it be merely declaratory in nature? In the view of the majority, the treaty would, in fact, become invalid immediately.


Furthermore, the draft conclusion 17 explicitly states that SC resolutions do not establish any binding obligations if they violate jus cogens norms. Recalling the aim of the presented draft conclusions, which is to formulate general rules, this approach was unwelcomed by the majority of the ILC members.[12]Indeed, as the legal order in international law now stands, it would be possible for a state to refuse the fulfillment of any obligation endorsed in SC resolutions on the basis of a conflict with jus cogens. It is nevertheless clear that if such a provision was adopted, this could not only result in political disturbances – it would be almost impossible to implement it in practice.


As for the responsibility of states, two draft conclusions concerning states’ obligation with respect to a situation conflicting with jus cogens have been brought into question by the ILC members.[13]To be exact, the bone of contention was whether it is justified to differentiate between the active and the passive state obligations, namely the “duty to cooperate” and the “duty not to recognize and assist”, depending on the gravity of breach of jus cogens norm. This approach conflicts with previous documents of the ILC (see article 41 of the Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts). In spite of the departure from the wording used in the aforementioned article, it seems reasonable to support the Special Rapporteur’s insistence to differentiate between different states’ obligations. Imposition of a lower standard, namely, not to recognize and assist in any situation which resulted from a violation of jus cogens norms, should be regarded as a welcome novelty. Indeed, it would be completely absurd to consider the gravity of the breach of jus cogens in this situation and therefore give the impression that it is lawful to recognize and assist in situations where the breach of jus cogens norms is not considered “serious”.[14]


Yet, the real trigger for divergent opinions were the draft conclusions addressing specific aspects of jus cogens and international criminal law. They stipulated state obligation to prosecute in cases of commission of “jus cogens crimes”, i.e. crimes violating jus cogens norms, and the irrelevance of the immunity ratione materiae for those offences.[15]These findings involve a number of highly complex issues. Firstly, any suggestion on a universal agreement concerning the duty to exert universal jurisdiction for all jus cogens crimes is insufficiently proven. This is evidenced by the fact that many states have expressed a clear reluctance towards the existence of the aforementioned duty.[16]Secondly, the discussion on the (ir)relevance of immunity ratione materiae for jus cogens crimes has demonstrated a certain level of misunderstanding among the ILC members, e.g. concerning the difference between immunity from civil and criminal proceedings. More importantly, a clear line between state and personal immunity has not been emphasized sufficiently. As a result, the reference to the ICJ judgment Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (Germany v. Italy: Greece intervening), as proof that there exists an exception to the rules on immunity,[17]appears inaccurate and unpersuasive. In this case, the ICJ has even explicitly stated that the only immunity in question is the immunity of a state, and that in any event, this should be considered without prejudice to the immunity of an official of the state.[18]


What comes next?


The ILC’s discussions on jus cogens are to be continued next year and many challenging questions will come into play again. According to the emphasis given to the issue, an illustrative list of jus cogens norms is to be expected sometime in the future.[19]Also, the need for a separate discussion on regional peremptory norms has been stressed on many occasions.[20]It would, therefore, be interesting to see how such norms could be subsumed under the current definition of jus cogens which stipulates them as “norms accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole.”[21]


Before concluding the present analysis, it is important to point out a core concern: it is evident that the ILC considers states’ consent and agreement to be crucial in all matters related to jus cogens. In this respect, it should be noted that the values protected by jus cogens are above states and their will, hence, their consent can never be the most relevant or the only decisive factor for their definition. Regardless of states’ perception of the peremptory norms, jus cogens should be perceived as principles which aim to protect the interests of the international community as a whole, and which therefore impose legitimate limitations to some other key principles of international law, such as stability of treaty relations, or the superior and binding nature of SC resolutions. While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the ILC’s current approach, we wonder whether it is truly independent from state or political influence.





[1]The session ended on 10 August 2018 as provided by the UNGA Resolution 72⁄116 (7 December 2017) UN Doc A⁄RES 72⁄116, at para 14.

[2]For the full text of the proposed draft conclusions see ILC, ‘Third report on peremptory norms of general international (jus cogens) by Dire Tladi, Special Rapporteur’ (12 February 2018) UN Doc A⁄CN.4⁄714, at para 160.

[3]ILC, ‘Report of the ILC on the Work at its 70th Session (30 April–1 June and 2 July–10 August 2018) UN Doc A⁄73⁄10, at para 111.

[4]Ibid, at para 113.

[5]Apart from the individual ILC members, Mr. Tladi also raised similar concerns. Ibid, at para 153.

[6]See, e.g., ibid, at para 131.

[7]See full texts of draft conclusions 17, 22 and 23 in ILC, ‘Third report’ (n 2), at para 160.

[8]ILC, ‘Report of the ILC on the Work at its 70th Session (n 3), at para 154.

[9]See full text of draft conclusions 10 to 13 in ILC, ‘Third report’ (n 2), at para 160.

[10]ILC, ‘Report of the ILC on the Work at its 70th Session (n 3), at para 119.

[11]Ibid, at paras 123–124.

[12]Ibid, at para 132.

[13]See full text of draft conclusions 20 and 21 in ILC, ‘Third report’ (n 2), at para 160.

[14]This argument was also introduced by the Special Rapporteur. ILC, ‘Report of the ILC on the Work at its 70th Session (n 3), at para 159.

[15]See full text of draft conclusions 22 and 23 in ILC, ‘Third report’ (n 2), at para 160.

[16]Roger O’Keefe, ‘Universal Jurisdiction: Clarifying the basic concept’ (2004) 2 JICJ 754. See also Dapo Akande’s response related to the topic: (…)“where universal jurisdiction is lawful the state exercising it will usually be permittedto prescribe globally. But it is not required to do so.” Galli Toma, ‘Universal Jurisdiction or Regional Lawfare’ (EJIL: Talk!, 1 June 2016)         <https://www.ejiltalk.org/universal-jurisdiction-or-regional-warfare/>  accessed 2 November 2018.

[17]See, e.g., ILC, ‘Report of the ILC on the Work at its 70th Session (n 3), at para 161.

[18]Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (GermanyvItaly, Greece intervening), Judgment, ICJ Reports 2012 (3 February 2012), at para 91. See also para 87 of this judgment.

[19]Ibid, at para 150.

[20]Ibid, at para 151.

[21]Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties (adopted 23 May 1969, entered into force 27 January 1980) 1155 UNTS 331 (VCLT) art 53.Jus cogensJus cogensJus cogens


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