Bernardo Sepúlveda Amor is the Vice-president of the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.
He was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of San Diego (1982) and by the University of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg (1987).
Bernardo Sepúlveda Amor (Mexico, 1941) is the Vice-president of the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, which is composed of 15 judges, who are elected by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. He graduated in Law at the National University of Mexico in 1964 and he obtained a Diploma in International Law at the University of Cambridge in 1965. He was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of San Diego (1982) and by the University of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) (1987). He has been Professor of International Law and International Organizations at several academic institutions. He was ambassador of Mexico to the United States in 1982, and Secretary of Foreign Relations of Mexico between 1982 and 1988. During this period, he was responsible for the Mexican participation in the Central American peace process. Among other awards, in 1984 he received the Principe de Asturias Prize in the field of international co-operation and in 1985 the UNESCO awarded him the Simón Bolivar Prize. He has held various positions of responsibility and in 2010 he was elected President of the Latin American Society of International Law.
Last May Sepúlveda visited the University of Barcelona, where he gave the closing speech of the UB’s Master’s degree in International Studies: International Organizations and Cooperation.
People often have the feeling that the United Nations is an organisation that doesn’t have the power to make important decisions.
I think that this perception is completely wrong. If the United Nations didn’t exist, we would have to invent it immediately because it’s an essential political and legal instrument that ensures the coexistence among nations. And it has proved to be efficient in many occasions: promoting negotiations between parties, mediating between conflicting parties, or establishing operations for peacekeeping in order not to aggravate conflicts. It also plays a decisive role in the post-conflict reconstruction of political institutions and the case of Cambodia is an example of it.
What role does the International Court of Justice have within the United Nations?
The International Court of Justice is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, being the only permanent judicial organ of the United Nations, which in its long existence has demonstrated a high degree of legitimacy and effectiveness. Almost all parties have duly complied with the judgements made by the International Court of Justice and it would be absolutely unfair to consider it to be inefficient. It is, in contrast, a large decision-making organ that legally keeps international peace and security; and a particularly suitable instrument to peacefully solve disputes.
What memories do you have of the Avena case and what impact do you think its sentence had?
I have good memories of it because it was my first experience in the Court and it allowed me to become a judge of the Court. The judgement was favourable to Mexico. It was a case involving 51 Mexicans who had been sentenced to death by U.S. courts and who had not had the due legal process: their procedural rights (right of defence, legal advice, etc.). The judgment of the Court stated that the United States had breached its international legal obligations and that the procedure should be reviewed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, several years after, that ICJ’s judgments were not applicable to U.S. domestic law and that, therefore, U.S. courts were not required to comply with this judgement. We then faced a difficult situation in which the United States recognised that they had breached the international law but that they couldn’t comply with the international obligations imposed by the judgement. I hope that this will be solved by means of a legislation emanating from the U.S. Congress which establishes that judgments by the International Court of Justice are mandatory and that, therefore, must be obeyed and implemented.
Do you think it is feasible to achieve a global justice, bearing in mind that each state currently has its own domestic legislation?
I think that we will gradually achieve this goal. The fact that international courts have multiplied to hear specific cases is significant. For example, in Europe there are different predominantly European courts and in my own continent there is an Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And this is a reflection of the concern to protect the individual with specialized regional courts. The International Criminal Court has also been created, together with war crime courts and the international community is genuinely concerned to ensure that those committing a crime receive due punishment.
In this context, what is your opinion on initiatives such as the one by judge Garzón which seek to hold dictatorships like the Chilean one responsible for persecuting Spanish citizens?
It is a very interesting case and a milestone in the so-called universal jurisdiction, in which Spanish citizens who were tortured and killed during the Pinochet dictatorship deserved satisfaction. The fact that Pinochet was, for health reasons, in London allowed being extradited to Spain. The extradition was granted and this fact speaks well of the British judicial system and of the Spanish judicial system, although unfortunately it was determined that for health reasons Pinochet could not be extradited to Spain and had to return to Chile. Interestingly, when he left London in a wheelchair, he looked like a very sick man. However, when he came down the plane’s stairs at the airport in Santiago de Chile he rose from his wheelchair and walked joyfully.
You were also part of the Court when it declared that the Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal. In Catalonia we are especially interested in such issues. How can this judgment affect future self-government processes?
It should not be seen as a precedent. In that case, the Court determined that a unilateral declaration of independence, which had emerged from the Kosovo authorities in 2008, was not contrary to international law. In other words, international law does not prohibit declarations of independence. It is accepted, in the international legal order, that unilateral declarations of independence correspond to a right of self-determination, which is a general principle of law recognized in all areas. But the Kosovo case is a very special one in which grave acts of violence occurred and in which the United Nations, proving once again its effectiveness, established an interim international authority with a pacifying role and, after a certain time, political and legal powers were gradually returned to a Kosovan local authority. Somehow, there was a natural process of self-government and independence. I think that the same criteria couldn’t be applicable to other circumstances, as conditions that occur in different parts of the world are not identical.
Justice is often in the public eye and it is not always well regarded. Some cases are difficult to understand, for example, the ineffective justice system in the murders and disappearances of women in Mexico. What is the problem?
You are right and unfortunately in Mexico the phenomenon has expanded and now victims are not only women. We are going through a very difficult period in which there are wars between organized crime gangs and there is a corridor that crosses the territory of the country from Colombia to the United States with the aim of ensuring the entry of cocaine and other drugs to the U.S. market, which is the market that unfortunately produces the highest revenues from all points of view. This means that in this context of drug trafficking there has been a phenomenon of assassinations, kidnappings and extortion, in which organized crime has diversified having severe consequences for those who are primarily involved in it. These gangs are warring against each other with the aim of ensuring that they have territorial control over major drug trafficking routes. Thus, what, in its origins, mainly affected women in Ciudad Juarez, it has now expanded in terms of territory and, therefore, there have been other victims: police officers, soldiers and innocent civilians, although 90% of victims are involved in organized crime and drug trafficking.
We haven’t achieved it yet. We have resorted to the aid of other states that have undergone similar experiences. Spain is providing us with police assistance and other states with similar experiences also help us, this is the case of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and also the United States, which is involved in this conflict. We need to fight against corruption, we require a highly sophisticated intelligence service, an effective mechanism to eliminate money laundering, and international cooperation in which drug-producing countries (Peru, Bolivia, Colombia…), transit countries (Central American countrieslike Mexico) and the United States implement a system of cooperation, which may effectively combat drug trafficking. If all these circumstances are not met, the problem won’t be solved.