Italy’s second argument: the subject-matter and circumstances of the claims in the Italian courts
80. Italy’s second argument, which, unlike its first argument, applies to all of the claims brought before the Italian courts, is that the denial of immunity was justified on account of the particular nature of the acts forming the subject-matter of the claims before the Italian courts and the circumstances in which those claims were made. There are three strands to this argument. First, Italy contends that the acts which gave rise to the claims constituted serious violations of the principles of international law applicable to the conduct of armed conflict, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Secondly, Italy maintains that the rules of international law thus contravened were peremptory norms (jus cogens). Thirdly, Italy argues that the claimants having been denied all other forms of redress, the exercise of jurisdiction by the Italian courts was necessary as a matter of last resort.
82. At the outset, however, the Court must observe that the proposition that the availability of immunity will be to some extent dependent upon the gravity of the unlawful act presents a logical problem. Immunity from jurisdiction is an immunity not merely from being subjected to an adverse judgment but from being subjected to the trial process. It is, therefore, necessarily preliminary in nature. Consequently, a national court is required to determine whether or not a foreign State is entitled to immunity as a matter of international law before it can hear the merits of the case brought before it and before the facts have been established. If immunity were to be dependent upon the State actually having committed a serious violation of international human rights law or the law of armed conflict, then it would become necessary for the national court to hold an enquiry into the merits in order to determine whether it had jurisdiction. If, on the other hand, the mere allegation that the State had committed such wrongful acts were to be sufficient to deprive the State of its entitlement to immunity, immunity could, in effect be negated simply by skilful construction of the claim.
84. In addition, there is a substantial body of State practice from other countries which demonstrates that customary international law does not treat a State’s entitlement to immunity as dependent upon the gravity of the act of which it is accused or the peremptory nature of the rule which it is alleged to have violated.
87. The Court does not consider that the United Kingdom judgment in Pinochet (No. 3) ( 1 AC 147; ILR, Vol. 119, p. 136) is relevant, notwithstanding the reliance placed on that judgment by the Italian Court of Cassation in Ferrini. Pinochet concerned the immunity of a former Head of State from the criminal jurisdiction of another State, not the immunity of the State itself in proceedings designed to establish its liability to damages. The distinction between the immunity of the official in the former type of case and that of the State in the latter case was emphasized by several of the judges in Pinochet (Lord Hutton at pp. 254 and 264, Lord Millett at p. 278 and Lord Phillips at pp. 280-281).
88. With reference to national legislation, Italy referred to an amendment to the United States Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, first adopted in 1996. That amendment withdraws immunity for certain specified acts (for example, torture and extra-judicial killings) if allegedly performed by a State which the United States Government has “designated as a State sponsor of terrorism” (28 USC 1605A). The Court notes that this amendment has no counterpart in the legislation of other States. None of the States which has enacted legislation on the subject of State immunity has made provision for the limitation of immunity on the grounds of the gravity of the acts alleged.
89. It is also noticeable that there is no limitation of State immunity by reference to the gravity of the violation or the peremptory character of the rule breached in the European Convention, the United Nations Convention or the draft Inter-American Convention.
91. The Court concludes that, under customary international law as it presently stands, a State is not deprived of immunity by reason of the fact that it is accused of serious violations of international human rights law or the international law of armed conflict. In reaching that conclusion, the Court must emphasize that it is addressing only the immunity of the State itself from the jurisdiction of the courts of other States; the question of whether, and if so to what extent, immunity might apply in criminal proceedings against an official of the State is not in issue in the present case.