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The Challenges of International Justice

It is easy to look at the facts, and other distressing realities, that surround the International Criminal Court and conclude that the 11-year old court is failing. And it might be. It has only handed out one verdict in its entire history, and it was a guilty vote. Many of its accused are still at large. But it serves a vital purpose in this day and age.

Justice is absent from the international community's agenda. To try and quell the crisis in Syria, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2118. The resolution notes the Security Council is "deeply outraged by the use of chemical weapons," that use of such weapons "constitutes a serious violation of international law," and it "stress[es]" that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons "must be held accountable".

However, besides its use of italics, the resolution does nothing to ensure any accountability for the commission of international crimes in Syria. The International Criminal Court, which can have jurisdiction over the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, does not fit into the plans of the international community.

Besides being deliberately left on the sidelines of one of the more odious crimes in recent memory, the ICC is experiencing other bumps in the road, questioning its efficacy and role in the international system.

After violence and killing in the wake of Kenya's 2007 elections, the ICC was called upon to investigate. It charged a number of Kenyan officials with crimes against humanity for their roles in the violence. Two of those men, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were recently elected President and Deputy President of Kenya. The ICC has refused to heed to the democratic wishes of Kenyans, the majority of whom appear to favour moving on over justice, and is not calling off the charges or trials. Deputy President Ruto's trial, currently ongoing, was suspended for a week to permit him to return home to deal with the hostage crisis.

Just before Mr. Ruto's trial began, Kenya's parliament voted to leave the ICC.

Ivory Coast is another state where the ICC was called on to investigate post-election violence. Simone Gbagbo, the wife of the former president, was one of those charged. However, instead of cooperating with the ICC, Ivory Coast recently announced it would not hand Ms. Gbagbo over and would try her at home.

The change of heart in the Ivory Coast followed an announcement from the African Union that it is planning a summit to discuss a mass withdrawal from the court in light of its apparently singular focus on Africa -- all of the court's cases are in African states. (It should be pointed out that ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is herself African, from The Gambia, and a number of African states requested the court's intervention.)

It is easy to look at these facts, and other distressing ICC realities, and conclude that the 11-year old court is failing. And it might be. It has only handed out one verdict (guilty). Many of its accused are still at large without any sign of being apprehended in the near future. In certain situations, like Syria, some (myself included) have at times thought it would cause more harm than good, causing our commitment to it to wane. This is the greatest threat to the court's success and longevity.

The ICC needs to reform. Justice cannot be one sided. It recognized this when, years after indicting members of the Sudanese government for crimes in Darfur it also indicted rebel leaders. If the court is ever called to investigate the situation in Syria it would be a disservice to justice if it did not investigate the Syrian rebels with the same vigour as it did the Syrian regime. And the court must do a better job at working with African states to end the hostility, and work together to achieve peace and justice.

But the international community, Canada included, must also prioritize the court and the ideals it stands for. This does not mean referring every atrocity for an ICC investigation. It means emphasizing the important role accountability for international crimes has in the resolution of conflicts -- whether through domestic processes, or if need be, in The Hague. We must work to further foster a culture of justice and accountability. Inherent in that role for a state like Canada is to press allies, like the U.S. and Israel, that have not joined the court to do so, and remove one of the most glaring instances of Western-justice hypocrisy.

Our commitment to justice cannot be selective. Holding accountable the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, no matter who those perpetrators are, should not take a back seat to political expediency.

These next few years will be critical for the ICC if it is to succeed as a serious institution able to uphold some of our more fundamental values. Security Council Resolution 2118 is the latest instance to suggest our commitment to those values may be wavering. Challenges to the court are piling up. The ICC, its supporters and skeptics, and perpetrators of international crimes are all taking note of how we react.

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