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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

James Stewart on Causation and Overdetermination

James Stewart has posted a new essay that sheds renewed light on an often overlooked problem in international criminal law.  Called "Overdetermined Atrocities," the essay was written for a special issue of the Journal of International Criminal Justice that is dedicated to its late founder, Judge and Professor Antonio Cassese.

In the essay, Stewart argues that the field has yet to confront a simple but profoundly disturbing paradox: since atrocities are committed by multiple individuals, the contribution rendered by any particular defendant is rarely a sine qua non of the crime's occurrence.  Rather, it is almost always the case that the crime would have occurred anyway without the defendant's contribution, because others involved in the event would have fulfilled the tasks carried out by the defendant.  Consequently, the defendant is not a "but-for" cause of the crime.

The philosophical literature has long battled this dilemma, which is referred to as the problem of overdetermination.  The classic thought experiment involves a firing squad with 10 members who all perform an execution by shooting at the prisoner.  Since the killing would have occurred anyway even if Person A had not participated in the execution, it is unclear whether Person A is an essential contributor to the event.  In fact, this is precisely the reason why firing squads were designed in this matter; it was thought that it would alleviate the guilt of the executioners by making each feel that they were not truly responsible for the result.

Of course, this results in a paradox.  If Person A is not responsible, then none of the others are responsible either because their situation is the same.  Hence no one is responsible for the event.  How can this be the case?

I urge readers to read Stewart's essay to evaluate his own preferred solution to the problem.  Here I want to concentrate on one element of the issue as it pertains to current doctrine at the ICC.  The doctrines of indirect perpetration and indirect co-perpetration require that the defendant make an essential contribution to the collective crime in order for liability to attach to the defendant.  As many scholars have noted, this yields a problem about the level of description.  If the defendant had not participated, a resulting crime would no doubt have occurred, but it would be slightly different from the crime that had occurred with the defendant's participation.  Should we call this the same crime or a different crime?  What is the line between the same crime and a "new" crime?  And does this exercise in description have normative significance for criminal responsibility?  It would be strange to think that responsibility should track this linguistic exercise.

The ICC might eventually revisit this issue.  For now, I would simply note that the Office of the Prosecutor has argued to the court that the "essential contribution" standard for indirect perpetration liability should be dropped in favor of a "substantial contribution" standard.  This would avoid the "sine qua non" problem of description that I have just elucidated, but the question is whether the substantial contribution requirement is strict enough.  Is simply removing the standard of the "essential contribution"and appropriate way of resolving ambiguities about how it should be applied?


Rob Clarke said...

It seems to me that the issue the firing squad example raises is that acts of that nature (shooting the prisoner) are essential in the sense that without them there is no crime, but the act of each individual is not required.

This is an issue which the ICC has, to date, not really confronted. Its jurisprudence is explicitly based on the assumption that there will be a neat division of labour whereby each essential act will be allocated solely to a specific individual, rather than one where two or more people carry out the same or similar tasks separately or in concert. As the firing squad example illustrates, it is unfortunately wishful thinking to imagine that every collective crime can ultimately be reduced to such an archetype - especially since every reasonably well thought out plan (criminal or no) will account for the contingency that one or another part does not fall into place.

The alternative, at least under the ICC Statute, is to resort to the much more elastic Article 25(3)(d). The question remains whether the phrase 'committed by a group of persons acting with a common purpose' presupposes that the principal offenders operate under the strict division of labour envisioned by Article 25(3)(a).

Jordan Watts said...

The act and the individual who did it will contribute on how heavy the punishment will be. And yes, the person, in court's eye, will be judge and delivered depending on how these people acted on their own and the crime they've committed.

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Wanda said...

I didn't realize that was the reasoning behind firing squads. That's illogical. Based on a fallacy.