ICC Anniversary: Support for Court, Concern at Challenges

The International Criminal Court in 2016 in the Hague, the Netherlands. Photo: OSeveno / Wikimedia Commons
The International Criminal Court in 2016 in the Hague, the Netherlands. Photo: OSeveno / Wikimedia Commons

UNITED NATIONS — On the 20th anniversary of the statute that created the International Criminal Court, supporters praised the tribunal’s actions to punish perpetrators of the world’s worst atrocities and expressed concerns about the enormous challenges and political attacks it faces.

General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak told a meeting on Tuesday’s anniversary that the ICC has “vindicated the rights of victims and survivors” of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. And “it is also contributing to preventing others from suffering similar fates,” he said.

But Lajcak stressed that “we must continue to resist any and all encroachments on international law.”

Liechtenstein’s Foreign Minister Aurelia Frick said the court’s “big achievements are matched by enormous challenges.”

“Multilateral diplomacy today is in a significantly weakened state,” she said. “What we witness is that there is a return to a nationalist agenda and skepticism of the rule of law.”

The Rome Statute was adopted on July 17, 1998, but the ICC wasn’t officially established until July 1, 2002, with a mandate to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It currently has 123 state parties who are bound by its provisions, which include arresting all those sought by the court.

While the Security Council has used its power under the Rome Statute to refer conflicts in Sudan’s western Darfur region and in Libya to the ICC, calls for the U.N.’s most powerful body to refer Syria, and more recently Myanmar, to the tribunal have failed.

Liechtenstein was one of nine countries sponsoring the U.N. meeting along with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which represents 2,500 NGOs in 51 countries, and Parliamentarians for Global Action.

ICC deputy prosecutor James Stewart told the meeting “there is reason to celebrate” because court “is having an impact.” He pointed to the prosecutions it has undertaken, the investigations it has opened in 10 countries, with a request pending to open another in Afghanistan, and the allegations that have been referred to it, including by the Palestinians.

He also pointed to the addition of the “crime of aggression” – which took almost two decades to define – that has officially been added to the array of crimes the ICC can investigate, starting Tuesday.

But Stewart said the court faces many challenges from “pushback against its exercise of jurisdiction” and “attempts to subvert the course of justice” during its proceedings to the failure to arrest all those indicted by the court, security issues and insufficient funding.

“While we want to see the court operate in an independent, impartial, objective way without reference to political calculation, every major decision that the prosecutor or the court takes has political implications or repercussions of one sort or another,” he said.

“Thus, in striving to deliver justice, the ICC operates along the fault line between justice and politics, and this can create negative perceptions of the court that run counter to its legitimate mission,” he said.

Stewart stressed the importance of support not only from states parties but from other countries.

The General Assembly’s Lajcak, noting that Tuesday is also the Day of International Criminal Justice, urged all 193 U.N. member states to recommit to international justice “and to reiterate the need to focus on victims.”

Richard Dicker, international justice director for Human Rights Watch, said “there is a risk that the deteriorating global trends on human rights will all too easily be exploited to undercut the ICC by those who have something to fear from accountability.”

Story: Edith Lederer