In honour of the recent review of the International Criminal Court in Kampala – attended by all sorts of dignitaries, both major and minor, including Ban-Ki Moon and his prosecutorship Luis Moreno Ocampo – it seems appropriate for Third World Goes Forth to conduct its own review of this most recent of all the international institutions.
The conference in Kampala was, of course, self-congratulatory and upbeat. Ocampo was on fine form: “It is only a matter of time [before] Sudan president Omar Al Bashir and LRA’s Joseph Kony will be arrested,” he said, sounding every inch the bullish wild west sheriff that he always reminds me of. But I’m unsure – both of the likelihood of arrests, and of exactly how much the ICC is achieving.
The ICC is, of course, a wonderful concept. That all men and women should be bound by the bare minimun of human dignity. That there is a point where one person’s behaviour is so bad that the world rejects it out of hand. And that punishment will follow for those found guilty of contravening the court’s central tenets – Do not Genocide, Do not War Crime.
The first problem is in the name. The ICC is not ‘international’; it does not represent the world. Specifically, it does not represent the USA, or China, or Israel, or Russia; to name but a few. There was another international institution that didn’t have the support of the USA – it was the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN which was, somewhat ironically, established largely due to the ferocious campaiging of the then-US president Woodrow Wilson. He persuaded the world to join, but not the US Congress; and from that moment the League of Nations became a lame duck, failing utterly to prevent the the second World War.
Similarly, the ICC suffers massively from the lack of support from key countries, allowing others to ignore it as and when necessary. This was most evident after the March 2009 arrest warrant for Sudan’s Omar Bashir, when all African countries (with the honourable exception of Botswana; again leading the continent in respect for rights for all humans except bushmen) chose to ignore the warrant at the AU conference in Siirte. The refusal of the US and China to participate in the ICC process meant that they would face few repercussions by ignoring the ICC’s arrest warrant.
There is also a distinct whiff of the political in the ICC’s choice of exaclty who to prosecute, and when to do so. African countries have been up in arms at the perceived anti-African agenda of the court. A quick look at the list of faces being prosecuted by the court reveals an astonishing racial bias – they’re all black Africans. According to the ICC, only black people have committed war crimes in the last few years. And bear in mind that not all these faces are from countries which are signatories to the Rome Statute. Sudan “unsigned” the Rome Statute – relieving itself of all obligations to the ICC – in August 2008, six months before Bashir was indicted. Yet the ICC has not gone after the citzens of any other non-signatory nations for atrocities; say in Iraq (Fallujah, perhaps, or Abu Ghraib?), or in the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. It has also not gone after seemingly obvious targets such as Osama bin Laden. Of course, there are enough people looking for Osama, and enough charges against him, that another one from the ICC would make little real difference [For the record, Osama’s hiding here]. But it would make significant symbolic difference, and this is what the ICC so far has failed to understand. Of course, the UN Security Council must take some responsibility, as one of the primary bodies that can refer cases to the ICC. But by only prosecuting African faces – regardless of the fact that those faces are fully deserving of prosecution – the court is sending a message that citizens of other countries are above the law; defeating the whole point of an impartial, international criminal court, and making it so much easier to ignore.
As soon as the law is applied to everyone, then the ICC will stand a much greater change of gaining the respect it deserves. Investigating the Gaza flotilla incident might be a good place to start.