International Criminal Court News

The ICC Building in the Hague

Until very recently, the implementation of international human rights standards has been sporadic and contingent on a country’s internal courts to prosecute and enact justice. After the horrors of World War II, the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals were among the first manifestations of an international justice system that would transcend borders to prosecute crimes that were so egregious they were an affront to a common humanity.

Several courts followed in the tradition of international law–most notably, the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda and International Criminal Tribunal of Yugoslavia- both of which prosecuted severe human rights violations.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is the first permanent court capable of superseding borders to try criminal acts – it is meant to be a last recourse in great human rights tragedies. One of the first prosecutions of the young ICC will hold leaders accountable for atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC trials show both the hope for the new court and others like it, and the difficulty they will face in trying to carry out meaningful justice.

The DRC, in the heart of Africa, has been at the center of some of the worst human rights violations of the 20th century. Over 2 million people have been displaced, shuffled into refugee camps, or, perhaps worse, forced to live precariously and unprotected in warzones. 5.4 million people have died in the decades-long conflict that set off  regional wars, bleeding out into neighboring countries. The nation, rich in natural resources, has been the stage for countless militia battles, some state-sponsored, some independent, while citizens are caught in the cross hairs. Children have been kidnapped and forced to fight as child soldiers.

More than 200,000 women and children are being raped every day, according to estimates, in an epidemic described as sexual terrorism. A Congolese human rights activist described the constant threat by militias: “They usually come at the end of the day or during the night. They just come and circle the villages. Most of the time, they killed all the men, and they take all the children, the girls, the mothers, the grandmothers as the sex slaves into the forest and steal — what can I say — everything they have, just maybe a goat or a chicken, and take them and use them,” Christine Schuler Deschryner told a radio host in 2007.

Atrocities like these don’t just happen. People cause them. Military leaders stage battles, implement rape as a tactic of war and kill innocent civilians. Historically, in areas like the DRC, these criminal acts have gone unpunished. Without a working judicial system, without a functioning central government, there is no structure for justice that can take on powerful militia leaders and provide accountability for crimes against citizens.

Over the last 20 years, coalitions of nations have built new bodies of international justice that can intervene in cases like the DRC. These bodies are meant to prosecute horrible human rights atrocities when national systems cannot or will not provide justice.

The largest and youngest of these, the International Criminal Court (ICC), is currently trying a DRC warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. His rebel group has been accused of ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape and mutilation. He is the kind of brutal warlord that everyone would like to see made accountable for his crimes.

The ICC has been in operation for only nine years. 139 nations are party to the ICC, but not the US, Russia or China. The three huge powers are gaping holes in the jurisdiction and legitimacy of the court.

Citizens of those countries cannot be tried in the ICC, and political leaders of the three countries have often undermined the court. After years of weakening the court’s jurisdiction with bilaterial agreements, the U.S.’s current stance is one of cautious non-engagement, a quiet policy reversal.

The ICC can only prosecute the most severe international crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. A case can be referred to the court by a country party to the court, a request for prosecution, or by a referral from the United Nations.

Many hold high hopes for the ICC. At its launch, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan toasted the ICC stating: “In the prospect of an international criminal court lies the promise of universal justice. That is the simple and soaring hope of this vision. We are close to its realization. We will do our part to see it through till the end. We ask you . . . to do yours in our struggle to ensure that no ruler, no State, no junta and no army anywhere can abuse human rights with impunity. Only then will the innocents of distant wars and conflicts know that they, too, may sleep under the cover of justice; that they, too, have rights, and that those who violate those rights will be punished.”

By The Numbers: The ICC
The ICC has opened 11 cases out of the nearly 9,000 requests for prosecution sent from around the world. With a budget upwards of 160 million dollars a year, five people are currently under custody at the Hague. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 children are currently serving as soldiers in armed conflicts. About 500,000 people are presently imprisoned without trial in China.

In the Luganga case, the ICC targeted some of the largest militia leaders, but it also bypassed many key – and likely culpable – officials in the DRC mess. The politicians who trafficked weapons to Lubanga and those who supported him in Rwanda and Uganda still in power. Protected by favored regimes of the US, the ICC neglected to charge them, leading some to question whether the ICC will ever be an impartial body that is above politics. At an ICC learning session in the DRC, a child paused to ask the humanitarian teacher in front of him why Lubanga was on trial when “others who did the same thing are working within the government?” The ICC has provided little transparency or explanation of who gets targeted for prosecution and why, or why some warlords end up in court and others as cabinet members. The ICC’s first trials – all in Africa so far – have presented problems of partiality, improper steps by prosecution, and limited capacity to take on cases. Still, at the very least, the ICC is stepping in where no other institutions can provide justice or accountability areas like the DRC.
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Two tribunals, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), were predecessors of the ICC and laid the legal groundwork for international criminal justice.

The ICTY is a UN court established in 1993 to try war crimes that took place during the Balkan conflicts. The ICTR prosecutes for crimes of genocide that took place in the 1990s during the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic conflicts.

Looking Forward

The next decade will be a defining era for the ICC and other international systems of justice. In all likelihood, they will either become normalized as international institutions, or become slowly incapacitated by lack of support.