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RIGHTS: Historic Court Under the Spotlight in New Film

Joy Wiltermuth

NEW YORK, Jun 1 2009 (IPS) - The International Criminal Court has struggled since its inception to realise its core mandate to prosecute the world’s worst human rights offenders, putting on trial propagators of genocide, war crimes and the inductors of child soldiers into civil conflict.

Yet, these crimes – evidenced by crushed humans skulls, burnt-out villages and ravaged civilian psyches – threaten to lay fallow in distant lands and killing fields that tentatively grow quiet.

The world’s collective will to exact justice is the worthy question posed by Pamela Yates’s latest film, “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court,” which will headline this year’s Human Rights Watch 20th annual international film festival at Lincoln Centre.

Yates’s documentary diligently traces the ICC’s creation, starting with the Nuremberg Trials, begun in 1945, and the international community’s nascent attempt to reestablish the rule of law and to punish World War II-era atrocities.

Ratification of the Rome Statutes in 1998 laid the legal basis for the court’s permanent foundation. Yet, under its watch, the world has continued to witness the horrors of warlords, heads of state and paramilitaries run afoul of humanity.

Conflict since the ICC’s establishment in 2002 has already killed nearly four million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Colombia and the Sudan’s Darfur region. “The Reckoning” stoically confronts the question whether justice will ever be served upon their perpetrators and if the international community can muster the will to do it.

The second question the film raises is who fears the authority of the ICC in a time of relative impunity? This duality of this assertion sits at the heart of “The Reckoning”, with its thinly veiled plea for the United States to reassess its commitment to the beleaguered international body.

To stress this point, John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, is situated as the film’s foil. His stated mission, to see the court “wither and collapse,” elicited laughs among the audience at the film’s pre-screening.

Perhaps with the new promise of President Barack Obama’s leadership, the sight of Bolton stumping for “American exceptionalism” can finally be met with nervous relief. But the bigger question remains, what moral authority can the U.S. lend to the human rights arena, after its wholesale endorsement of torture, extra-judicial renditions and the indefinite detention of “enemy non-combatants,” for the sake of national security?

Yet, for the past seven years, the fledgling international court has hashed out a distinct presence without much assistance from the U.S. Thus, the film turns to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a lawyer from Argentina, who is the chief engineer of the ICC’s recent push to convict war criminals.

His is a charismatic force, and through the camera’s concentrated gaze, seems the lifeblood of court’s growing prominence. Moreno-Ocampo arrived at The Hague primed for the pursuit of justice. His confidence ripples a controlled cool, his esteem earned through prior work as an assistant prosecutor during the trials of Argentina’s military junta.

But as the ICC’s chief prosecutor, “The Reckoning” follows Moreno-Ocampo for three years as he swaggers, pleads and antagonises his way across diplomatic channels and four continents. Under his leadership, the court cajoles foreign governments to hand over suspected war criminals and his team tirelessly collects evidence of human rights abuses.

In Bogotá, Moreno-Ocampo bullies Colombia’s head prosecutor to step up enforcement of President Alvaro Uribe’s “Justice and Peace Law” – or to otherwise step over. Six decades of war there pitted the country’s paramilitary forces against civilians, a cycle of drug war profiteering and violence in which the ICC alleges that elected officials have been complicit.

Urged by the ICC, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the alleged leader of the Congo’s Lord’s Resistance Army, was arrested in 2006 and handed over. Lubanga still awaits trial in The Hague for war crimes based on evidence that he conscripted child soldiers.

For some, the arrest of a single warlord has produced divided results. Fear of ICC arrest is credited with pressuring militias in the Congo and Uganda to enter tenuous peace talks. Following Lubanga’s capture, the LRA’s ranks splintered, disbursing various rebel groups into the bush. One soldier is quoted in the film saying, “Joseph Kony is afraid of the ICC,” referring to the Ugandan group’s still at large commander.

Meanwhile, armed militias continue to call for amnesty. Villagers face intimidation at the hands of gunmen and, while years have passed since the killings, the international community has yet to punish anyone.

Yet, moments captured on film can convey universal truths. Footage of Moreno-Ocampo from 2007 shows him prodding the U.N. Security Council to issue a referral to the ICC, so that an arrest warrant can be issued for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.

By then, well-documented accounts of rape, torture and starvation of the civilian population in the country’s Darfur region were known to international community. Moreno-Ocampo addresses his speech to the diplomatic ranks, calling upon them to drop their veil of aversion. In his final remarks to the world’s most powerful foreign states, he urges, “Silence only helps the criminals.”

“The Reckoning” opens the first night of the Human Rights Watch festival, which runs from Jun. 11 through 25 at Lincoln Centre’s Walter Reade Theatre in New York.

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