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RIGHTS: Ten Years On, Some Step Towards Justice

Irene de Vette

ROTTERDAM, Jul 15 2008 (IPS) - Human rights organisations all over the world will celebrate the tenth anniversary Jul. 17 of the adoption of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is the first and only permanent international criminal tribunal to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Our hope is that, by punishing the guilty, the International Criminal Court will bring some comfort to the surviving victims and to the communities that have been targeted,” then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said on the historic day in 1998. “More important, we hope it will deter future war criminals, and bring nearer the day when no ruler, no state, no junta and no army anywhere will be able to abuse human rights with impunity.”

After the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago put the establishment of a permanent criminal tribunal, a wish that had long existed among the international community, back on the agenda. While ad-hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established, a Statute was drafted in 1994 and then adopted in 1998 as the Statute of Rome. It went into effect Jul. 1, 2002, when the required 60 states had ratified it. To date, there are 106 ratifications. Some countries have not signed, among them the United States, China, India and Israel.

Early July of this year, former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was transferred from Belgium to the ICC in The Hague, the Netherlands, to face multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic. On Jul. 14, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in connection with the ongoing violence in the Darfur region.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a 250-page report in The Hague last Friday, assessing the past five years of the court’s operations. The report titled ‘Courting History’ looks at the considerable progress the unprecedented judicial institution has made, and some of its shortcomings. Progress has been made in terms of investigations and criminal charges, but also in the establishment of field offices and witness protection measures, the report says.

However, the recent suspension of the proceedings against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga due to the prosecutor’s inability to disclose potentially exculpatory information, raises a difficult issue. Insufficient investigative force, especially against those with considerable experience, could be at the root of this problem, HRW says.

The ICC can only prosecute crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. It has no police unit to execute warrants, and is thus dependent on assistance of governments.

The HRW report recommends that the ICC should embark on more robust and tailored outreach programmes to increase its impact among communities most affected. “It’s time for the institution to come out of its shell,” Parampreet Singh, counsel for HRW’s International Justice Programme, said at the report’s launch.

“The ICC’s key to success relies for a great part on the relevance to affected communities,” added Géraldine Mattioli, Advocacy Director of the International Justice Programme of HRW.

HRW plans to bring the report to the attention of court officials and state parties. “We will use the report as a basis for further lobbying for continuing support of the ICC,” Mattioli told IPS.

The Coalition for the International Court (CICC), a global network of over 2,500 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) advocating a fair, effective and independent ICC, sees the report as a “great tool”, a CICC spokesperson at The Hague told IPS. The CICC has organised several events to mark the tenth anniversary of the Rome Statute.

One of these events took place at the Peace Palace in The Hague Jul. 3, attended by Princess Máxima. Maxime Verhagen, Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, told a gathering of diplomats, members of international courts, those responsible for drafting the Rome Statute, academics and members of the court that the Netherlands was proud to host the ICC.

Unlike the ad-hoc tribunals, “the ICC is a permanent court – it is here to stay. And the world should be extremely grateful for that.” The Netherlands will continue to strive for universal adoption of the Statute, Verhagen said. Not only does the country provide technical support, such as housing the court and transportation of suspects, but also political support, such as assistance for countries in the process of signing or ratifying the statute, he said.

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