Category Archives: Nazi War Crimes

Void ab initio: A legal history

“He who has real power is also capable of determining concepts and words,” wrote Nazi constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt. “Caesar dominus est supra grammaticam (Caesar is also the lord of grammar).”

Schmitt is studied not as a grammar Nazi but for the import of his most famous words in the very first line of his “Political Theology” (1922): “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” A true sovereign wields unchecked power to name friends and enemies of the state.

Solicitor General Jose Calida may not have read Schmitt in law school, but his use of the Latin maxim void ab initio in Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV’s amnesty case is textbook Schmittian grammar. It is what the President says it is.

In 1941, the German Jewish émigré Ernst Fraenkel published in the United States his book, “The Dual State,” showing how the Nazis applied Schmitt’s ideas to seize control of German administrative and judicial bodies.

The legal scholar described two contrary features of Hitler’s government: There was the “normative state,” the formal constitutional norms for civil and political rights, and the “prerogative state,” with its arbitrary exercise of power. Fraenkel’s study shows the gradual surrender of the normative state to the prerogative state by German lawyers, legal scholars and judges after Hitler declared martial law on Feb. 28, 1933.

For one, German courts considered martial law a political act outside their jurisdiction. Schmitt argued that the grounds for martial rule in Article 48 of the Weimar constitution cannot limit the Führer’s own prerogatives. If the constitution provides but two grounds for martial law—rebellion or invasion—he may disregard it. Or he may hold that terrorists who lay siege to Berlin are committing rebellion, even if it means treating them as a political group, as long as he gets his martial law.

Hitler had argued that he is the societal order. Thus, he who opposes the president opposes law and justice. Yet many believed him. Every governmental action must align with the goals of National Socialism, a “religion without a god.”

In 1929, professor Carl Bilfinger wrote that international law is limited by reservations on national security. Schmitt agreed, saying the reservations are more important than the treaty. Both scholars would be fine with the Philippine withdrawal from the International Criminal Court as a sole executive prerogative.

There was only muted resistance to this system, like a lower court ruling that a composer is entitled to royalties for his music aired by radio stations, rejecting arguments that the stations — since they also aired Nazi propaganda — were exempt from royalty fees.
Otherwise, democratic institutions toed the line. Across Germany, the prerogative state reduced the rule of law to its arbitrary and irrational diktat.

Even civil servants were denied access by the courts to their own official records in disputes with their superiors (sounds familiar?). A 1935 decision of the Prussian Supreme Administrative Court abolished Article 129, Section 3 of the constitution guaranteeing the right, as it contradicted the Nazi “leadership principle.”

The Prussian Supreme Court also held that all religious activities must meet government regulations; if not, believers may be guilty of stoking “indirect Communist danger.”
In 1938, another court convicted a minister of breaching the peace for praying for prisoners held by the Nazis. Fraenkel noted how the highest court of Bavaria erased the fundamental principle of double jeopardy, punishing anew a man who had already served his sentence for “high treason.” The principle is merely procedural, it so held.

All eyes are now on the Makati City Regional Trial Court Branch 148, and the Supreme Court: Is ne bis in idem, as the principle is said in Latin, also void ab initio, as the President says?

By 1936, “the resistance of traditional law-enforcing bodies was weakened.” We all know what happened to German Jews — they lost their right to property, and their very own lives. For, by simply being born into a race not of their own choosing, they rendered their right to exist void ab initio.

This was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 3, 2018.

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Filed under Carl Schmitt, Ernst Fraenkel, Human Rights, Impunity, legal theory, martial law, Nazi War Crimes, political theology, Public Interest, Supreme Court

Impunity for Nazi War Crimes

By Prof. Harry L. Roque, Jr.

The International Court of Justice recently promulgated a judgment which calls into question both the relevance and function of international law. Unwittingly, it  declared that Nazi Germany is entitled to impunity for acts of forced labor that it committed during World War II.

In its February 3, 2012 decision in the case of Germany vs. Italy, the court ruled that the principle of sovereign immunity from suits is a customary norm of international law that cannot be infringed unless waived by the state. This immunity subsists even if the claim against it is for violation of a peremptory norm, referred to as “jus cogens” in international law. It also ruled that state assets are also immune from execution

The case arose because of a series of Italian domestic court decisions awarding civil damages against Germany for forced labor committed during World War II.  While Germany has acknowledged that it committed grave breaches of international humanitarian law during the war, it nonetheless insists that claims against it for damages should be brought pursuant to its domestic law authorizing payment of compensation to individuals for these breaches and before German courts. Unfortunately, German courts barred compensation for forced labor for individuals with the status of a Prisoner of War. This is because the Germany insists that under the Geneva Conventions, POWs may be compelled to work by the detaining power.

In a case involving Luigi Ferrini who claimed to have been forcibly deported from Italy to Germany and made to work in a munitions factory, the Italian court ruled that Germany may not invoke state immunity for the commission of an international crime which at the same time, is covered by a jus cogens prohibition. The Court then awarded Ferrini damages and sought to enforce its decision against a real property owned by Germany in Italy. Hence, Germany’s resort to the ICJ.

The ICJ upheld Germany’s claim of immunity by ruling that under customary international law, the rule remains that a state is absolutely immune from suits for acts committed by its military troops in the territory of the forum. Furthermore, it stressed that under customary law, a violation of a jus cogens norm, even if acknowledged, as it was by Germany, cannot result in waiver of state immunity. In both points, the court enumerated a long list of state practice in the form of legislation and court decisions indicating that other than for Italian and Greek judicial decisions, the principle of state immunity as derived from the principle of sovereign equality of states remains to be firmly rooted in international law.

In ruling in the manner that it did, the ICJ  applied an already disregarded notion that international law is only about the application of legal rules. In fact, bulk of the Court’s opinion was devoted to an examination of what the law is, assuming perhaps that what is may be divorced from why it is law and what it seeks to accomplish. International law is law only because states accept it as such. While states may have varying reasons why they acknowledge it to be law, the fact remains that like all laws, international law forms part of normative system. It prescribes conduct deemed beneficial to all of humanity and prohibits conducts that are otherwise.

This means that in the application of rules, the Court should have considered what is more beneficial to humanity: the cold application of the principle of sovereign immunity or the primacy of protecting civilian and POWS in times of armed conflict. While it is true that sovereign equality of states is a foundational principle of the law, the same is true also of the principle that that human rights have also ceased to be purely domestic issue.

The fact that the ICJ gave primacy to the principle of sovereign immunity from suits ignores why these rules exist in the first place; that is, to protect the interests of individuals and not the interest of an artificial being that is a state. As some have noted, international law protects for instance, the environment—not because the ocean or the air should be protected as such. We do so ultimately because human beings require clean water and air.

True, the Court expressly said that its ruling does not affect the liability of state agents when they themselves commit egregious acts. But why should there be a distinction? Precisely because a state can only act only though its agent, there should be no distinction hence between suits against the state itself and against its agents.

The Court also engaged in face-saving when it said that its decision is without prejudice to the liability of the German state for the commission of an internationally wrongful act. But what use is this when victims are bereft of a remedy under domestic law? Who will authorize the award of compensation to the victims when current state practice still deny individuals a standing to bring claims under international law? Certainly, similar claims to that of Ferrini’s were rejected by the European Court of Human Rights on jurisdictional grounds.

There is clearly more merit in the lone dissenting opinion written by a former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights Judge Antonio Trindande: “The Court’s decision … seems more open and receptive to the sensitivities of States than to the victimized human beings, subjected to deportation and sent to forced labor.”

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Filed under Impunity, International Court of Justice, International Law, Nazi War Crimes, Sovereign Immunity