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Rome Statute at 20: Suggestions to States to Strengthen the ICC

Published on August 6, 2018        Author:  and
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC, Court), the world’s only permanent tribunal with a mandate to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The euphoria that greeted its adoption has been tempered by an appreciation of its limits. Disappointment with the Court’s record has led to pessimism about the future of international criminal justice generally. Critics point out that the ICC has spent nearly US$1.5 billion since it began operations in 2002 and, in that time, convicted just three people on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The truth is more nuanced

But the ICC is more active, and its cases more complex, than many of its critics realize. The ICC has brought cases against 42 individuals, resulting in eight convictions (five for witness tampering). Cases have failed, for a variety of reasons – including state obstruction of access to evidence, and bribery and intimidation of witnesses – at the pre-trial, trial and appeal stages. Four persons are currently on trial; another is in ICC custody at the confirmation of charges stage. A large proportion of those charged are fugitives.

Another key point is that the ICC is a court of last resort. It does not have primacy of jurisdiction like the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Rwanda (ICTR), Sierra Leone (SCSL), and Cambodia (ECCC). Instead, the ICC’s guiding principle is complementarity: it will not intervene if a State is genuinely investigating or prosecuting. So, by design, the ICC’s duty to investigate and prosecute is deferential to domestic jurisdictions, which can result in challenging circumstances for all involved. Unlike predecessor tribunals, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) must devote considerable resources to encouraging, and assessing the progress of, domestic legal processes.

The Court carries a heavy workload and is forced to spread its resources thinly. Whereas the ICTY, ICTR, SCSL and ECCC had scores of lawyers and analysts poring over evidence from one conflict, the ICC has to deal with many. It is currently carrying out “preliminary examinations” in Afghanistan, Colombia, Gabon, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestine, the Philippines, Ukraine and Venezuela. It is conducting investigations in Uganda, the DRC, Darfur, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Georgia and Burundi. Each requires mastering a complex conflict with shifting alliances, an array of State and non-State actors, and dozens of societal factors central to a proper contextual understanding. Each requires gaining access to reliable evidence necessary to determine which party is responsible for which crimes, and whether the state is genuinely investigating or prosecuting. This requires a great deal of diplomatic engagement with numerous States. Read the rest of this entry…