Why are War Crimes Sentences So Short?

Judges of the International Criminal Court
(Christian Science Monitor)
Judges of the International Criminal Court (Christian Science Monitor)

Earlier this summer, a US District Court issued sentences in a international maritime piracy case that involved four US victims. The defendant was not an actual pirate but a ransom negotiator for the piracy financiers.

A Somali man who acted as a ransom negotiator for pirates who seized a yacht last year and killed four American hostages has been given 12 life sentences by a US federal judge.

Mohammad Shibin was convicted in April on 15 charges including piracy, hostage taking, kidnapping and conspiracy. He was paid $30,000-$50,000 (£19,000-£32,000) in cash for his negotiating services, according to a federal indictment.

In a courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia, Judge Robert Doumar of the US district court sentenced Shibin to serve 10 concurrent life sentences, two consecutive life sentences and two 20-year sentences and ordered him to pay $5.4m in restitution. The Guardian (UK)

Judges of the International Criminal Court
(Christian Science Monitor)

The case illustrates a key difference between domestic courts and international tribunals when exercising jurisdiction over international crimes.  To my knowledge, no international tribunal has ever issued consecutive sentences.  As I recently blogged, the International Criminal Court issued three sentences of 12, 13, and 14 years in its first concluded trial against Thomas Lubanga.  However that Tribunal ordered the sentences to be served concurrently.  They could have issued the sentences to run concurrently up to a maximum of 30 years.  Article 78(3) of the Rome Statute pertains to sentencing and it provides:

 3.  When a person has been convicted of more than one crime, the Court shall pronounce a sentence for each crime and a joint sentence specifying the total period of imprisonment. This period shall be no less than the highest individual sentence pronounced and shall not exceed 30 years imprisonment or a sentence of life imprisonment in conformity with article 77, paragraph 1 (b).

It has always struck me as curious that the drafters of the Rome Statute would want to impose sentencing limits of judges in cases as serious as genocide and other mass atrocity cases.

A sentence of consecutive life sentences such as issued in Shibin is obviously symbolic but nonetheless a powerful statement about the nature of the crime.  Take for example the Dos Erres Massacre case in El Salvador in which four soldiers were convicted of murdering 201 people and sentenced to 6060 years.  As the BBC noted

The sentence is largely symbolic as the maximum actual [maximum] term is 50 years …

The cases at international tribunals often deal with much more egregious crimes – the Ituri region in Lubanga saw 60,000 persons killed.  And yet tribunal judges have been unwilling to issue symbolic sentences that reflect the fact that mass atrocities are not ordinary crimes and should not involve ordinary sentences.