Last week there was much coverage about South Africa’s intended withdrawal from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as potential withdrawals by other states, including Burundi. The dominant theme in the media coverage was that this is a “major blow” or “devastating blow” to the ICC. I am hesitant about some of the gladiatorial metaphors. I suggest there are differences between a setback for the International Criminal Law (ICL) project, for human beings, and for the ICC. I also suggest a measured perspective, placing these events within a very long, turbulent, contested tale of human governance.
Historic perspective on a long-term project
Our lives are short and history is long. The tumults of our times loom correspondingly large to us, but the longer view can put crises in context. For example, many current criticisms of ICL reflect impatience and indignation that a fully-fledged, mature, international rule of law with global compliance has not been built in a few years. But it took centuries to produce current configurations of state governance and rule of law – the idea that human institutions might try to provide a better approximation of justice in human lives. And even after centuries of practice, errors, disasters, lessons and successes, the state law system is very, very far indeed from perfected. ICL itself is one effort to ameliorate to those flaws. We happen to be alive during a significant renovation in a centuries-old system.
My point is: past innovations in human governance took centuries, not months. They involved much contestation. If people see ICL in historical perspective, they will not expect quick fixes or linear progress. ICL entails politically, sociologically, legally and intellectually difficult and contestable changes to entrenched systems. There will be lessons to learn and criticisms to absorb. If it succeeds, it will do so after lurches, setbacks and pushbacks. Comfortingly, on the biggest scale, human governance has been moving in a positive direction for a long time. Read the rest of this entry…