International Criminal Law and Corporate Actors - Part 2: The Rome Statute and its Aftermath - By Maisie Biggs

Editor’s note: Maisie Biggs graduated with a MSc in Global Crime, Justice and Security from the University of Edinburgh and holds a LLB from University College London. She is currently working with the Asser Institute in The Hague.  She has worked for International Justice Mission in South Asia and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam.


The Rome Statute is a central pillar of international criminal law (ICL), and so any discussion concerning the subjection of legal persons requires a revisit of the negotiations surrounding its drafting. However in the time since its implementation, there appears to have been a shift in ICL regarding corporate liability. Developing customary international law, treaty law and now most domestic legal systems have some established mechanisms for prosecuting legal persons for violations of ICL.

The Rome Statute

A lot has been written on the negotiations surrounding the drafting of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute). This document established the International Criminal Court (ICC), its rules and jurisdiction, and codified the core crimes of ICL and surrounding general principles. Article 25(1) of the Rome Statute explicitly restricts the court’s jurisdiction to natural persons, meaning that corporate wrongdoing may only be approached by the ICC through individual criminal responsibility or superior responsibility for corporate actors.[1] The Statute was a “major achievement”[2] as the first international law instrument essentially summarising the general principles of criminal law across national legal systems.[3] Concerns about ‘complementarity’ arose as the ICC would be expanding the reach of ICL far beyond the remit of ad hoc Tribunals like those used to try crimes in Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia. The new Court needed to complement, rather than undermine national courts and jurisdiction.[4]

During negotiations, individual responsibility of legal persons, corporations or criminal organisations was described as “a major political issue on which political guidance from the Committee was needed.”[5] France had submitted a compromise proposal in the International Criminal Court Draft Statute of 1998 concerning the inclusion of responsibility of legal persons. The French representatives surmised that resistance from other states to its inclusion was because there was no equivalent in some domestic legal systems, while others held the view that the concept would be misapplied in an international criminal court.[6]

The French proposal linked the responsibility of the legal persons with the responsibility of criminal organisations at Nuremberg. Under this proposal, group responsibility would be linked with the previous commission of a crime by a natural person (thus in no way concealing individual responsibility), and adopting in parts Article 10 of the Charter of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal,[7] the Court would make binding determinations on the criminality of an organisation, which states would need to implement and then penalise by fines or proceeds of crime confiscation.[8]

The proposed text was as follows:

“[Art 23(5)]: Without prejudice to any individual criminal responsibility of natural persons under this Statute, the Court may also have jurisdiction over a juridical person under this Statute. Charges may be filed by the Prosecutor against a juridical person, and the Court may render a judgement over a judicial person for the crime charged, if:

(a) The charges filed by the Prosecutor against the natural person and the juridical person allege the matters referred to in subparagraphs (b) and (c); and

(b) The natural person charged was in a position of control within the juridical person under the national law of the State where the juridical person was registered at the time the crime was committed; and 

(c) The crime was committed by the natural person acting on behalf of and with the explicit consent of that juridical person and in the course of its activities; and

(d) The natural person has been convicted of the crime charged.

For the purpose of this Statute, ‘juridical person’ means a corporation whose concrete, real or dominant objective is seeking private profit or benefit, and not a State or other public body in the exercise of State authority, a public international body or an organisation registered, and acting under the national law of a State as a non-profit organisation.”[9]

This was a compromise solution from France between liberal and romantic conceptions,[10] looking not only to convict ultimately the company or organisation, but rather still use it as a mechanism for attributing responsibility to individuals.[11] Several countries supported the concept, however prevailing concerns of enforcement and complementarity remained, especially for countries with no basis of corporate criminal liability. The matter was referred to the Working Group following mixed reception from states, however once there, negotiations met stifling time pressures.[12] Per Saland, the Chairman of the working group which negotiated issues surrounding Part 3 of the Rome Statute concerning these general principles of criminal law (including Article 25 on individual responsibility), has since revealed that time ran out for the Working Group when it came to discussion of some more difficult issues, including liability of legal persons.[13] David Scheffer, who was also involved in the negotiations, has confirmed that the combination of time pressures and complementarity concerns prevented the proposal from succeeding, however he has added that another contributing factor was a more fundamental concern that the “novelty” of the proposed corporate criminal liability would have “imperilled” the entire treaty’s ratification by states.[14]

No agreement was reached concerning subjecting legal persons. Article 25(3)(d) retained a reference to a ‘group of persons acting’,[15] so the French idea of individual participation in a larger collective was incorporated to an extent, however all references to legal persons have been removed in the final article. Perhaps unintentionally, a similar door for corporate liability remained ajar in article 7(2)(a), through reference to organisational policy.[16] In the ICC investigation into the Kenyan situation,[17] the Court examined this issue:

“Clearly, the 'organization' is an entity different from a "State" if the legislator was to avoid redundancy. Thus, it is permissive to conclude that an 'organization' may be a private entity (a nonstate actor) which is not an organ of a State or acting on behalf of a State [para 45].”

The Court delineated various ‘state-like’ characteristics that a non-state actor would have to demonstrate in order to qualify as an organisation under this article,[18] however none expressly excluded legal persons like companies from the article’s ambit. 

Andrew Clapham provides an in-depth history of the Rome Statute negotiations, and how controversial this question of legal persons became.[19] This episode has been treated as a definitive rejection of ICL liability for legal persons,[20] however the Rome Statute is just one (important) part of the larger ICL picture.

Post-Rome caselaw developments 

Since Rome, customary international law through Tribunals, treaty law, and domestic law have all developed. Most notably, for the first time legal persons have been subjected under ICL by an international criminal tribunal.[21] In the Al Jadeed S.A.L. & Ms Khayat (New TV S.A.L.)[22] case, an Appeals Panel for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) overturned a decision that the Tribunal lacked jurisdiction over legal persons on 2 October 2014, allowing the case to proceed against the corporate entity Al Jadeed S.A.L. and natural person Ms Khayat. This was then followed by another contempt case Akhbar Beirut S.A.L., similarly against a legal and natural person.[23] In New TV S.A.L., Judge Baragwanath acknowledged the development of domestic corporate accountability, and so determined that international criminal law has likewise progressed:

“Corporate liability for serious harms is a feature of most of the world’s legal systems and therefore qualifies as a general principle of law. Where States still differ is whether such liability should be civil or criminal or both. However, the Appeals Panel considers that… corporate criminal liability is on the verge of attaining, at the very least, the status of a general principle of law applicable under international law.”[24]

The decision has been met with a mixed reception. Filled with “historical references and normative ambition,”[25] some commentators have characterised the decision as an encouraging progression from state practice and foundation stone for future ICL criminal liability.[26] However the basis of Judge Baragwanath’s decision has been described by Dov Jacobs as a “molotov cocktail to kill the principle of legality” as the judge’s reasoning relied only on “the ‘spirit’ of the statute combined with inherent jurisdiction.” Others have found the later Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. opinion more convincing due to its more concrete basis in Lebanese law.

The Tribunal very consciously restricted their consideration and findings to the specific crime of contempt: looking to precedent, they examined only whether there had been previous findings on contempt with regards to legal persons in the various international criminal tribunals, and found there had “simply been no legal pronouncement on this specific issue.” [27] The Tribunal drew its power to prosecute for contempt from its inherent jurisdiction as a judicial institution.[28] Like the ICTY and ICTR before it, the STL’s primary jurisdiction for ‘core’ international crimes is explicitly over only natural persons, however the separate framework in the general Rules of Procedure and Evidence allowed the Tribunal to consider the broader definition of ‘persons’ for contempt.  The importance of this distinction for the case does also support Andrew Clapham’s argument that “at this point, the exclusion of non-natural persons can be seen as the consequence of a ‘rule of procedure’ rather than the inevitable result of application of international criminal law.”[29]

There is debate about the broader applicability of these decisions, because of the STL's ties to Lebanese law. The STL itself is a partially-domestic forum which reduces the ICL significance of an ‘international tribunal’ taking this step. The legal basis for the Tribunal’s decisions is at least partially grounded in Lebanese law -  Article 2 of the formative statute of the STL mandates the use of Lebanese law (under which corporate criminal liability is possible) - however it is debatable whether this case is purely an instance of domestic legal application of international criminal law. Article 2 concerns only the applicable criminal law, (i.e., the ‘core crimes’ discussed above) and not the procedural rules on which this decision was based, which are grounded in international law concerning international tribunals. It would then appear that the legal basis for this decision was purely international, and the Tribunal in New TV S.A.L. accordingly based their decision on  “current international standards,”[30] however in the Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. case the Tribunal links back the foreseeability of this corporate prosecution to Lebanese law: “It would be an oddity for a Lebanese company to face criminal sanction in Lebanon for interfering with the administration of justice with respect to cases before Lebanese courts and at the same time enjoy impunity for similar acts before an internationalised Tribunal guided by Lebanese law in carrying out its judicial work.“[31]

The highest profile media case last before an international tribunal also concerned the responsibility of legal persons. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) had a special focus on the media’s role of incitement in the Rwandan genocide.[32] As the Tribunal in the Akayesu case positively quoted: “it was impossible that hundreds of thousands of people should commit so many crimes unless they had been incited to do so.”[33] The ICTR case of Prosecutor v. Nahimana et al.[34] (also known as the Media Case) tried three natural persons for their roles in inciting the Rwandan genocide. Two of these were the controlling figures of media organisations: RTLM was a radio station and Kangura a publication. The court found a specific “specific causal connection” between RTLM broadcasts and the killings, which “engaged in ethnic stereotyping …[which] called explicitly for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic group.”[35] The articles published by Kangura similarly had the impact of “whipping the Hutu population into a killing frenzy.”[36] What was distinctive about this case was that the court, before outlining the individual responsibility of the named accused, went into great detail about the culpability of the organisations in question. The court named the media organisations themselves as responsible for inciting genocide: “If the downing of the [President’s] plane was the trigger, then RTLM, Kangura and CDR were the bullets in the gun.”[37] It was not possible under the ICTR’s jurisdictional mandate to subject legal persons and so the court in the Media case did not broach this issue, however the structure and substance of the court’s reasoning centred primarily on the responsibility of the organisations, and only after did the court then address the roles of the natural persons who were actually on trial.

What may merit further investigation is how media cases before international tribunals differ from the prosecution of other international crimes that corporate actors engage in, such as pillage or complicity. The media acts as the ‘fourth estate’, a fundamental and (ideally) independent pillar of a functioning system of democratic governance. Arguably then, media companies are not purely private, non-state actors but serve a partially civic function, and so are in some ways fundamentally different actors than other corporate entities.[38] How the unique role of this specific ‘private’ actor impacts its liability under ICL warrants further investigation.

International instruments imposing some form of corporate liability

A growing number of recent international treaties and conventions are incorporating obligations to impose sanctions on legal persons.[39] These include the Optional Protocol on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 3(4)), Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime 2000 (Article 10(2)), and Convention Against Corruption 2003 (Article 26 (2)). As pointed out by Sabine Gless and Sarah Wood, these instruments remain vague about implementation.[40] Nonetheless, for these crimes states are required in some form to impose sanctions on legal persons.[41]

The Draft Articles on Crimes Against Humanity being prepared by the International Law Commission (ILC) may go the same way as the afore-mentioned draft of the Rome Statute, but for now Draft article 6, paragraph 8 contains explicit subjection of legal persons:

“Subject to the provisions of its national law, each State shall take measures, where appropriate, to establish the liability of legal persons for the offences referred to in this draft article. Subject to the legal principles of the State, such liability of legal persons may be criminal, civil or administrative.”

This final sentence allows for flexibility in domestic application, however the offences being contemplated are international crimes. This convention is being designed to be a development from the Rome Statute, the “next generation” of legal tools concerning crimes against humanity.[42] The addendum to the ‘Fourth report on crimes against humanity’ drafted by Sean D. Murphy, Special Rapporteur of the ILC, links this article with the previously mentioned international law instruments which are subjecting legal persons.


The ICC is as yet not touched by these developments, however there are glimmerings of a shift in customary ICL. As will be explored in the next post in this series, most domestic legal systems now have established mechanisms for prosecuting legal persons for violations of ICL. The Rome Statute negotiations surrounding the subjection of legal persons were centralised on complementarity; if domestic law has fundamentally shifted in the interim period it makes sense that this issue be revisited in international caselaw and international instruments as well.

[1] David Scheffer, ‘Corporate Liability under the Rome Statute’ (2016) 57 Harvard International Law Journal Online Symposium 35, 35.

[2] Per Saland, ‘International Criminal Law Principles’ in Roy S Lee (ed) The International Criminal Court: The Making of the Rome Statute (Kluwer Law International NL, 1999) 190-191.

[3] ibid.

[4] Andrew Clapham, ‘The Question of Jurisdiction under International Criminal Law over Legal Persons: Lessons from the Rome Conference on an International Criminal Court’, in Menno Kamminga and S Zia-Zarifi (eds), Liability of Multinational Corporations Under International Law (Kluwer Law International, 2000) 139, 142.

[5] ‘Summary records of the plenary meetings and of the meetings of the Committee of the Whole’ in Official Records of the United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, Rome, 15 June-17 July 1998, Vol. II, UN Doc. A/Conf.183/C.1./L.3, 132.

[6] ibid 133.

[7] Clapham (n 4) 147.

[8] ‘Summary records of the plenary meetings and of the meetings of the Committee of the Whole’ (n 5) 133.

[9] ‘Working paper on article 23, paragraphs 5 and 6, UN Doc. A/Conf.183/C.1/WGGP/L.5/Rev.2, 3 July 1998in Official Records of the United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, Rome, 15 June-17 July 1998, Vol. III, 252.

[10] “A liberal conception of responsibility focuses on individual agency and abstracts individual wrong from collective action. The ‘romantic’ view admits that international crimes are typically by their very nature committed in collectivities, and thus closely connected to some degree of collective will. The two traditions have been in conflict since the naissance of international criminal law.” in Carsten Stahn, ‘Liberals vs. Romantics: Challenges of An Emerging Corporate International Criminal Law’ (2018) 50 Case W Res J Intl L 91, 99.

[11] ibid, 100.

[12] Saland (n 2) 194.

[13] ibid.

[14] Scheffer (n 1) 38.

[15] See the Case Matrix Network commentary on Article 25(3)(d) for the relationship between this and the doctrine of Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE).

[16] “‘Attack directed against any civilian population’ means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack” [emphasis added].

[17] Decision Pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute on the Authorization of an Investigation into the Situation in the Republic of Kenya: ICC-01/09-19-Corr 01-04-2010 110/163

[18] “[para 68] As I have endeavoured to demonstrate above, certain criteria need to be satisfied to qualify a non-state actor as an 'organization' under the ambit of article 7(2)(a) of the Statute. This state-like 'organization' is the author of a policy "to commit such attack" against any civilian population which is implemented by its members using the means of the 'organization'. As in case of a State policy, it seems to me that the "organizational policy" must be established at the policymaking level of the ‘organization'."

[19] Clapham (n 4) 142.

[20] This negotiation process was used as a basis for the UK and Netherlands Amici Curiae brief in the Kiobel case, which argued that there was no corporate liability under international criminal law: “corporations have been deliberately excluded from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.” Brief of the Governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Kingdom of the Netherlands as Amici Curiae in support of the Respondents (No. 10-1491) (filed 3 February 2012), 17.

In the Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC decision, the negotiation process was cited by both Justice Kennedy in the lead decision [p 15] and Justice Sotomayor in her dissent [p 8], the former using it as evidence of ICL's rejection of corporate liability, and the latter characterising it as evidence merely of varying domestic practices and not a definitive rejection of corporate civil liability under the Alien Tort Statute (as was one of the issues in this case).

[21] Nadia Bernaz, ‘Corporate Criminal Liability under International Law: The New TVS.A.L. and Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. Cases at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’ (2015) 13 Journal of International Criminal Justice, 313, 313.

[22] New TV S.A.L, Decision on Interlocutory Appeal Concerning Personal Jurisdiction in Contempt Proceedings, Al Jadeed S.A.L. & Ms Khayat (STL-14-05),, Special Tribunal for Lebanon Appeals Panel (2 October 2014).

[23] Akhbar Beirut S.A.L., Decision on Interlocutory Appeal Concerning Personal Jurisdiction in Contempt Proceedings, Case No STL-14-06/PT/AP/AR126.1, 23 January 2015.

[24] New TV S.A.L. (n 22) para 67.

[25] Stahn (n 10) 98.

[26] See Nadia Bernaz (n 21).

[27] New TV S.A.L. (n 22) para 41.

[28] As articulated in Rule 60 bis (A) [Contempt and Obstruction of Justice] of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence for the STL.

[29] Andrew Clapham, ‘Extending International Criminal Law beyond the Individual to Corporations and Armed Opposition Groups’ (2008) 6 Journal of International Criminal Justice 899, 902.

[30] New TV S.A.L. (n 22) para 60.

[31] Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. (n 23) para 59.

[32] “The power of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control such media are accountable for its consequences.” Prosecutor v. Nahimana et al., ICTR–99–52, Judgment and Sentence (3 December 2003) para 945.

[33] Akayesu (TC) ICTR-96-4 (2 September 1998) para 551.

[34]Prosecutor v. Nahimana et al., ICTR–99–52, Judgment and Sentence (3 December 2003) para 953.

[35] Ibid para 949.

[36] Ibid para 951.

[37] Ibid para 953.

[38] This might be a controversial statement within the broader debate in Business Human Rights circles concerning the civil functions, and public duties and responsibilities, of all companies.

[39] Bert Swart cites seventeen international instruments which have provisions on corporate criminal liability with discretion concerning state-level sanctions, “while before 1997 none existed at all": Bert Swart, ‘International Trends Towards Establishing Some Form of Punishment for Corporations’ (2008) 6 J International Grim Just 947, 949.

[40] Sabine Gless and Sarah Wood, ‘General Report on Prosecuting Corporations for Violations of International Criminal Law: Jurisdictional Issues’ in S Gless and S Broniszewska (eds) Prosecuting Corporations for Violations of International Criminal Law: Jurisdictional Issues (International Colloquium Section 4, Basel, 21-23 June 2017) 16.

[41] ibid.

[42] See a summary of Professor Murphy’s 2015 Supranational Criminal Law Lecture at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut.

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