The Realities of Extradition: The Case of Cecil the Lion

By: Adry Sotolongo

For Zimbabwe, the Summer of 2015 will be forever marked by the tragic loss of Cecil, a Southwestern African lion from the Hwange National Park.[1] Known for its iconic black mane, this proud animal marked a cornerstone of wildlife conservation efforts[2] in a country plagued with illegal poaching.[3] While local efforts have been made to prosecute hunting guide Theo Bronkhort,[4] and limit big game hunting, international news has focused on Dr. Walter Palmer, a United States citizen who has admitted to killing Cecil as part of a hunting expedition.[5] While Dr. Palmer was ultimately not charged for his participation,[6] the case still serves to highlight the complexities of extradition in the international criminal arena.

Extradition allows a State to hand over a suspected or convicted criminal to another State to face justice.[7] Some specific international offenses are bound by the obligation known as aut dedere aut judicare, through which States have bound themselves by treaty law to either prosecute or extradite.[8] For example, when examining the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) noted that “extradition is an option . . . whereas prosecution is an international obligation under the Convention, the violation of which is a wrongful act engaging the responsibility of the State.”[9]

Some scholars suggest that, in addition to the conventional treaty-based obligation, certain crimes precluded by peremptory norm, including genocide, are afforded the obligation of aut dedere aut judicare as a matter of customary international law.[10] This view was used by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on the crime of torture, noting that “one of the consequences of the jus cogens character . . . is that every State is entitled to investigate, prosecute and punish or extradite . . . .”[11]

Most crimes, however, are not addressed under any specific international treaty and —lacking any obligation to extradite under International Law— rely on bilateral treaties between States.[12] Such is the case concerning the death of Cecil, bound only by the 1997 Extradition Treaty between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe.[13] Effective since 2000, the extradition treaty has never been used by either State.[14]

The process of extradition begins with a request to the State Department, in accordance with Article 6 of the Treaty between the U.S. and Zimbabwe.[15] However, nothing in the Treaty obligates either State to extradite even if all criteria are met. Rather, the treaty states its provisions are to be interpreted as an “exercise of comity,”[16] that is, done as an exercise of courtesy rather than legal obligation.[17]

Assuming a petition passes this first hurdle, a decision by the Department of State to proceed with the extradition petition would still require the case to first be evaluated by a U.S. Court.[18] The court would then move to consider what is commonly known as the “dual criminality” requirement, through which only offenses punishable by a similar penalty are considered extraditable.[19] In the present case, the courts would have had to consider if the killing of Cecil an offense punishable by both States, through a “deprivation of liberty for a period of more than one year or by a more severe penalty to be eligible.”[20] The result of this high bar is that the United States has rarely extradited on wildlife charges.[21]

A plausible, if improbable, alternative would have been to frame the issue not as an environmental/economic crime of poaching, but as a cultural crime. As early as the establishment of the United Nations Charter, States have been called to “achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of [a] . . . cultural . . . character . . . .”[22] The right to culture was further developed in both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[23] While it is somewhat of a legal stretch to assume that Cecil would fall under the concept of culture as conceived in these Covenants, his significance in Zimbabwean culture should not be understated.[24] Furthermore, the ICJ has noted in dictum that certain rights, including the right to cultural heritage, should be considered as obligations erga omnes.[25] This quality would suggest a duty to either prosecute or extradite, and would aggravate the nature of the crime within U.S. law.

The case to extradite those responsible for Cecil’s death is a complicated one, with few options available to the Zimbabwean people. Still, the issue has served to highlight the often-limited extradition options under International Law, hopefully paving the way for more comprehensive treaties in the future.

Photo credit: Vince O’Sullivan


[1] Jason Bittel, Why Cecil the Lion was so Popular with People, National Geographic (July 30, 2015), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150730-cecil-lion-africa-hunting-science-animals/.

[2] Id.

[3] Alissa Greenberg, This is How Many Animals were Killed in Zimbabwe in the Last 20 Years, Times (July 30, 2015), http://time.com/3978116/zimbabwe-cecil-the-lion-poaching-hunting-wildlife-walter-palmer/.

[4] Desmond Kwande & Alexander Smith, Cecil the Lion Guide Theo Bronkhost says He Had Never Heard of Animal, NBC World News (Aug. 5, 2015), http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/cecil-lion-guide-theo-bronkhorst-says-he-had-never-heard-n404346.

[5] Elisha Fieldstadt, Cecil the Lion’s Killer, Dr. Walter Palmer, Contacts Authorities, NBC News (August 1, 2015), http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/cecil-lions-killer-walter-palmer-contacts-authorities-n402081.

[6] Peta Thornycroft, Cecil the Lion: Zimbabwe says it will not charge US Dentist Walter Palmer over Killing, The Telegraph (Oct. 12, 2015), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/11926731/Cecil-the-lion-Zimbabwe-says-it-will-not-charge-US-dentist-Walter-Palmer-over-killing.html.

[7] Malcolm Shaw, International Law 686 (6th ed. 2008).

[8] For list of applicable conventions, see U.N. Secretariat, The Obligation to Extradite or Prosecute (aut dedere aut judicare), U.N. Doc. A/CN.4/640 (June 18, 2010), and corresponding Annex.

[9] Questions Concerning the Obligation to Prosecute or Extradite (Belgium v. Senegal), Judgment, 2012 I.C.J. 422, at ¶95 (July 20).

[10] Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Crime in International Law: Obligations Erga Omnes and the Duty to Prosecute, in The Reality of International Law: Essays in Honour of Ian Brownlie (Guy S. Goodwin-Gill & Stefan Talmon, ed. 1999).

[11] Prosecutor v. Furundzija, Case No. IT-95-17/1-T, Judgment, ¶156 (December 10, 1998).

[12] Shaw, supra note 7, at 686.

[13] Extradition Treaty between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe-U.S., July 25, 1997, Treaty Doc. 105-33 [hereinafter Extradition Treaty].

[14] Danny Cevallos, Can Zimbabwe have lion’s killer extradited?, CNN (August 1, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/01/opinions/cevallos-can-dentist-be-extradited/.

[15] Extradition Treaty, supra at note 13, art. 6.

[16] Extradition Act, 18 U.S.C. §3181(b).

[17] Shaw, supra note 7, at 2.

[18] 18 U.S.C. §3184.

[19] Extradition Treaty, supra note 13, art. 1–2.

[20] Id.

[21] Natalie Schachar & Timothy M. Phelps, Zimbabwe to Seek Extradition of American Dentist Who Killed Cecil the Lion, LA Times (July 31, 2015), http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-zimbabwe-seeks-extradition-20150731-story.html.

[22] U.N. Charter art. 1(3).

[23] See the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights arts 1, 3, 6(2), & 15(1), Dec. 16, 1966, S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-19, 6 I.L.M 360 (1967), as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights arts. 1 & 27, Dec. 16, 1966, S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-20, 6 I.L.M. 368 (1967).

[24] Farai Sevenzo, What Cecil the Lion Means to Zimbabwe, BBC News (July 30, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33722688.

[25] Case Concerning Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Co., Ltd (Belgium v. Spain), 1970 ICJ 1, at ¶33 (Feb. 15).

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