International Criminal Court Turns 21

Here in the Human Rights category of Dare to Know, we have an anniversary to mark. It’s not the moon landing, although we will deal with that in Cosmology. This anniversary might be even more important, but in an entirely different field.

The United Nations adopted the Statute of Rome 21 years ago on July 17, 1998. That statute created the International Criminal Court (ICC). Readers are often surprised to learn that the International Criminal Court is so new. They ask “what about Nuremburg, or the genocides in Kosovo or Rwanda? How could there be trials without a court?”

They’re right, of course. The story goes back a lot more than 21 years. The earliest movement for an international court came out of World War I. Readers will be aware of the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, where the treaties settling the war were signed. They may not recall that this same conference called for a League of Nations and an international tribunal to enforce international law.

The League of Nations was formed, although with mixed results. No tribunal ever materialized. The League of Nations tried to revive the idea in Geneva in 1937. Thirteen countries signed on, but again the plan was never implemented. The League of Nations couldn’t prevent WWII.

After the horrors of WWII, the allies had no choice but to find a way to bring war criminals to justice. There was no existing international criminal justice system. The allies formed two ad hoc courts on their own authority as occupying powers. These were the famous International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg, and the less well-known International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo. These courts set the precedent for holding criminal trials under international law. The United Nations was impressed, and wanted to set up a permanent tribunal in the wake of their success.

One of the countless tragedies of the Cold War was that the rivalry between the USA and the USSR blocked this from happening. In the 1990s the world saw more genocides in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. With the cold war over, and these kinds of regional conflicts flaring up under the so-called new world order, the need for an international tribunal became obvious yet again. After a series of conferences and years of committee work, the UN General Assembly convened in Rome and, at last, created the International Criminal Court. The statute was adopted by 120 countries.

Marking the anniversary, the president of the court, Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji stated, “The fact that we have today a permanent International Criminal Court has changed the way the world looks at atrocities. The world expects accountability. Victims demand justice. The space for impunity for these atrocities is shrinking.” We’ve touched on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in earlier posts. Positioning the court in this way ties it directly to SDG 16, which calls for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

Like all international institutions, the court has achieved mixed results. The court has indicted 44 war criminals. These have included such infamous figures as Joseph Kony, Omar al-Bashir, Uhuru Kenyatta and Muammar Gaddafi, among others. The court has opened investigations on 11 situations and is conducting preliminary investigations on 10 more. Some prominent current cases arise from events in the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Congo and Mali.

On the downside, the ICC has issues. In some ways, the Rome Conference set up the ICC to fail. The biggest problem is that the United States withdrew from the Statute of Rome in 2002, along with Israel. The Bush Administration made this decision in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Bush was convinced that American citizens would not be treated fairlyby the court. The Obama Administration was more flexible, but it also did not formally join the ICC.

As with most other policies, the situation is far worse under Donald Trump. The Trump Administration has threatened visa bans on ICC staff if they investigate US citizens serving in Afghanistan. The US under Trump even revoked the ICC Procecutor’s visa last April. This is an unacceptable abuse of power.

Other concerns about the ICC have come from Africa. Nations on that continent point out that incidents that take place in underdeveloped nations with black populations seem to be the priority. Similar incidents taking place in developed nations with white populations do not seem to face the same scrutiny. And, of course, since the United States is not a member of the court and has, at times, been actively hostile to it, that country can act with impunity around the world.

On the whole, we have mixed emotions as we mark this anniversary of the ICC. The Conference of Rome succeeded where countless others had failed. Even so, the ICC has not been an unqualified success. The failure to bring the United States on board has hobbled the court. The current administration is making matters worse than ever. What nobody seems to think about are the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They should be the focus of the ICC and all nations, including the United States.

We all need to find ways to pressure our governments wherever we live to bring this focus to the ICC. Hopefully, it won’t take another 21 years to get that done.



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