THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Operating out of a converted parking garage and a modern high-rise in the Dutch capital, the International Criminal Court has toiled in relative obscurity for most of its 10 years, apart from the occasional negative headline, such as when President George W. Bush decided to undo Bill Clinton’s decision to join it.
Then last month, a YouTube video suddenly catapulted the court to global fame. “Kony 2012” portrayed Joseph Kony, a Ugandan militia leader charged with abducting children and turning them into slaves and killers, as World Villain No. 1. The video’s star was the man who indicted him, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, and he denounced Kony as a criminal who should be arrested.
“Joseph Kony was committing crimes for 20 years, and no one cared,” he said. “We care.”
For the ICC, which started work in July 2002, and until last month hadn’t completed a single case, the Kony video may have been great public relations – it had had 88 million hits through Tuesday – but it also was a display of the court’s impotence. Kony is still at large, despite the court’s 2005 indictment charging him with crimes against humanity. U.S. special forces troops dispatched to the Central African Republic haven’t been able to find him, and the aim of the video was to build public pressure on the U.S. and other governments to act.
In a historic case Thursday, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in arming rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone, receiving so-called blood diamonds in exchange. The United Nations and the Sierra Leone government set up that court, an ad hoc tribunal that’s separate from the International Criminal Court, and the verdict was the first of its kind against a former head of state since the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.
But even with Thursday’s judgment, which followed a five-year trial, the question can be asked whether the ICC is the most effective way to deter the world’s most serious crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Might political initiatives launched in sub-Saharan Africa, where so many war crimes have occurred, or at U.N. headquarters eventually render the ICC superfluous?
To date, the only suspects the ICC has indicted are government and militia leaders from Africa. In the first verdict the court ever reached, in mid-March, it found Thomas Lubanga, a rebel leader in eastern Congo, guilty of conscripting child soldiers.
A much bigger case will be that of Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, whose trial on charges of crimes against humanity is to begin shortly. Four senior Kenyan political figures also are to go on trial early this summer on charges of crimes against humanity, accused of helping to fan the violence after Kenya’s 2007 elections. Other than Kony, the court’s most prominent indictee is Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who’s charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
To an outsider, the court’s annual budget of 108 million euros ($142 million) and its 700 employees look big, and its plan for a massive permanent headquarters costing 120 million euros ($158 million), grandiose.