par Me Pascal Paradis, directeur général, et Me Janine Lespérance, conseillère juridique, Avocats sans frontières Canada
July 17, 2018 marks twenty years since the adoption of the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC). On this occasion, it’s worth highlighting the significance of this global regime of international justice.
At first, the idea of creating a world court to judge the individuals responsible for the most heinous of crimes - genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression – was considered a far-fetched dream of idealists. Yet against all odds, the Rome Statute was adopted in 1998, officially entering into force on July 1, 2002. Canadians, in fact, played an instrumental role in making this happen.
The ICC has been critical for advancing accountability around the globe. But in assessing the value of the Rome Statute, it’s important to take into account its broader impact around the world, including its value at the domestic level.
The ICC was never intended to conduct its work alone. It was made to be a “court of last resort”. A key element of the Rome Statute is that states have the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute international crimes. The ICC intervenes only when they are unwilling or unable to do so. In other words, the Rome Statute did not only create an international court in The Hague, it established a global system for justice to be done at the national level.
Lawyers Without Borders Canada partners with committed lawyers and human rights defenders pushing for accountability in their own court systems. The Rome Statute is a critical tool for us and for them.
While the road to justice is long, there are some encouraging developments. Historic decisions have been rendered by the ICC, such as that against Thomas Lubanga for the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the ICC is carrying out investigations around the globe. Less known by the general public are the profound changes that have occurred in the way national prosecuting authorities and courts investigate, prosecute, and sanction the worst kind of crimes –including, notably, sexual violence– since the adoption of the Rome Statute. This has resulted in concrete gains against impunity. The Rome Statute has also proven a key instrument for peace. In Colombia for instance, it was taken into account by peace negotiators, and the ICC Prosecutor’s active and close monitoring of the situation has helped to keep justice on the national agenda.
Canada was actually the first country to incorporate provisions of the Rome Statute into domestic law, and has its own War Crimes Program to ensure that there is no safe haven for war criminals. Two important cases concerning the Rwandan genocide were heard in Canadian courts, resulting in one conviction and one acquittal.
Around the world, the fact that atrocity crimes may one day be punished in a national or an international court is a factor that would-be perpetrators must take into account.
There are legitimate criticisms of the Rome Statute system, and some of the ICC’s results have been disappointing, particularly from the perspective of organizations that work closely with victims, like ours. The recent acquittal by the Appeals Chamber of former Congolese Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, after being sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment by the Trial Chamber for crimes committed in the Central African Republic, is one example. Yet such a complex system will always attract criticism; the ICC’s work must be assessed globally, not based on a single decision.
Moreover, the “ICC in crisis” refrain is overblown. The ICC still has 123 member states. In many of the instances in which state leaders have threatened to withdraw from the ICC regime, it is likely because they feel threatened by the possibility of a case against them. Their opposition to the ICC is thus unsurprising. ICC cases to date have all involved African individuals, but many of these were initiated after Africans themselves requested ICC intervention.
For example, in Mali, where LWBC works on peace, justice, and human rights initiatives in close partnership with Malian organizations, the government asked the ICC to investigate. The ICC’s work in Mali has resulted in one conviction, and charges brought in another case. Our civil society partners celebrate these achievements. Justice is important for establishing peace and security.
In its work, the ICC is dependent on cooperation and financial support from states. The demanding work of the ICC involves analyzing thousands of pages of evidence from around the globe, in a multitude of languages, investigating highly complex crimes in often-unstable situations, and carrying out trials that meet a high standard. The few convictions rendered by the ICC are, if anything, indicative of the need for continued support of its work.
On the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, Canada should reaffirm its commitment to international justice, by calling for investment in the ICC and other international justice initiatives, ensuring its own War Crimes Program has sufficient funding, promoting adherence to the Rome Statute for countries that have yet to do so, and supporting advocates working for justice around the world. Criminal accountability for atrocity crimes is a cornerstone of establishing a global rule of law. Ultimately, it helps to create more peace and security for all of us, abroad and here in Canada.