Could the court have accomplished more in its first decade? “It really takes time for a new court to take off,” said Navi Pillay, a former judge on the ICC and the ad hoc international tribunal on Rwanda who’s now the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights. “It’s significant that in 10 years, without any mechanism of empowerment, they were able to secure the arrests of a number of high-ranking accused persons,” she told McClatchy.
She noted that it took the European Court of Human Rights six years to get its first case, and now it has a backlog of 60,000.
One reason for the ICC’s record is the absence of key powers from the list of nations that have signed the 1998 treaty that set up the court. The ICC has 121 state parties, which provide political and financial support and recognize its jurisdiction, the latest being Guatemala, but the U.S., Russia, China and Israel have refused to join.
“It is essentially ineffective because the major powers are not members,” said Yehuda Bauer, a historian and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, in Jerusalem. “The whole issue of international law is problematic,” he said. “The moment a country decides its interests are contrary to international law, they just ignore it.”
He gave as an example Israel’s policy of building settlements on occupied Arab land, which is “in so many words contrary to international law.”
That brings up a sore point for ICC observers.
Early this month, Moreno-Ocampo rejected a three-year-old request by the Palestinian Authority to become a member state so that the ICC could investigate the Israeli assault on Gaza at the end of 2008 for possible war crimes. Moreno-Ocampo cited the technical grounds that the U.N. General Assembly hadn’t recognized Palestine as a state.
The ICC is a relative latecomer to the scene of international justice, and when the ad hoc tribunals that preceded it – for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone – close their doors, it will have the field to itself.
But the world’s horror over mass atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, which gave birth to the ICC, also led to the creation of other international institutions, and while they operate mostly outside the public eye, they’re intended to deal with volatile situations before they explode into genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The United Nations now has an undersecretary-general whose job is to advise on the prevention of genocide – to sound the alarm if there appears to be a risk of genocide occurring anywhere in the world. Francis Deng, the Sudanese-born human rights champion, has held the post for the past five years and has focused on reminding sovereign states of their obligations to uphold human rights.
Another creation is the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a grouping of 11 east African countries that’s intended to raise awareness of genocide, rape and other atrocities that occur in war. Liberata Mulamula, the first executive secretary of the group, said the initiative was founded on the idea that countries themselves must take responsibility for making certain their internal conflicts don’t lead to major crimes.
“We committed ourselves to making the region genocide-free, by addressing the root causes,” she said of the countries in the group, which include Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo.