An historic Week: Bringing War Criminals to Justice

Like proverbial buses, it seems you can wait ages for a landmark international justice case, and then four come along at the same time.

By any standards, this has been a remarkable week for international justice. On Thursday Radovan Karadžić was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for his role in genocide and other atrocities committed during the Balkans war. Whilst this story may have grabbed the front page headlines, it was sandwiched between three other historic international legal milestones.

Monday's conviction of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was not only was it the first time that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has convicted someone for rape as a war crime but was also the first conviction in international criminal law to classify the rape of men specifically as sexual violence. In addition it was the first ICC conviction based on command responsibility, namely that a those in charge will be held criminally liable for the actions of those under their command.

On Wednesday the ICC ruled that there was enough evidence to put former Lord's Resistance Army commander, Dominic Ongwen, on trial. They confirmed 70 charges committed in Uganda against including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting child soldiers. He will become the first person to stand trial for forced pregnancy under international criminal law and the first person before the ICC to face charges of forced marriage.

The following day the ICC confirmed that it would commit Malian jihadist, Ahmad Al Faqi Al-Mahdi, to trial for "the war crime of attacking buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments". Al-Mahdi, a former Ansar Dine leader, has indicated that he will plead guilty to attacks in Timbuktu in 2012. It will be the first time that anyone has faced trial at the ICC for the destruction of cultural landmarks.

The fact that these cases were heard in the same week may be merely coincidental, but it nevertheless sends out a strong signal that commanders who commit or permit atrocities will ultimately be held responsible.

Whilst some argue that Karadžić should have received a life sentence and point out that two decades after the Bosnian war, thousands of cases of enforced disappearances remain unresolved, this week's verdict is nevertheless a significant success for the ICTY. The ICC cases also come at an important time as the court -- which relies entirely on individual nations to carry out its arrest warrants -- faces increasing financial and political challenges.

With Kenya and South Africa both recently indicating that they may withdraw from the ICC's Statute the need to recognize its importance as a key route to justice for many victims is more vital than ever. More than 10,000 victims have engaged in the ICC's proceedings so far from countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Libya, Mexico, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Ukraine. Despite this, since it was set up in 2002, only ten official investigations have been opened and an additional seven preliminary examinations undertaken. Thirty-nine people have been indicted in the ICC, including Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo.

Whilst international law and the means by which it is enforced are far from perfect, they remain the best mechanism that the world has to challenge impunity, ensure accountability and provide justice for victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This week they proved that they can be effective.