Humanity's Courtroom: The ICC Eight Years On

With 5 ongoing investigations and a trial in process, the press and countries that don't recognize the ICC should be reminded of why the court exists and needs the support of all nations.
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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the achievements of the International Criminal Court at a summit meeting in Uganda this weekend. This could not have been timelier: with 5 on-going investigations and one trial in process, the World's press and the countries that do not recognize the ICC should be reminded of why the court exists and needs the support of all Nations.

As a global community, we vowed "never again" after the Holocaust. That vow took the form of the Nuremberg Trials, an international military tribunal to prosecute Nazi leaders charged with crimes against humanity. We recognized then how crimes of such magnitude demand a justice system reflecting the collective judgment of the world's people. We realized then our collective responsibility to hold a public trial in front of the world, acknowledge the unimaginable pain and suffering and the millions of lives lost, and importantly, offer some measure of justice. We understood then that the trials were a small, but important step, in preventing such mass atrocities from ever happening again. Yet it took half a century, many more human atrocities, and opposition from countries that once supported Nuremberg to create a permanent international intuition, the International Criminal Court (ICC), to investigate and try the world's worst crimes - genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The ICC was first created in 2002, but it is only now holding its first trial. At the center of this trial is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the militia leader accused of horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity during the ethnic conflicts in 2002 and 2003 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The charges against Lubanga include kidnapping children, torturing them, and forcing them to become child soldiers. An estimated 30,000 child soldiers, ages seven to fifteen, have been used in the conflicts that still threaten the country.

Since the trial began, courageous victims and witnesses have taken the stand to tell their stories. The testimonies are gut wrenching and horrific. Several witnesses have broken down on the stand and all have taken great risks to testify. All of us have a responsibility as human beings to listen to these testimonies and acknowledge the special horror of these crimes that threaten the sanctity of all human life. The ICC represents the best hope for a measure of justice for crimes for which there is no commensurate retribution.

The ICC is in part a response to the crimes against humanity of the last hundred years, but it is also a tool to fulfill the "never again" vow for the future. Over the last fifty years, the world has established a human rights framework to protect basic human life and dignity, but there is no effective way to enforce these rights without an international judicial system to defend these rights and offer justice. Too often war crimes and crimes against humanity happen in regions devastated by poverty and corruption and they often go unpunished or worse, unacknowledged. Relying on national infrastructures battered by conflict or controlled by the very perpetrators of these crimes is not enough. If we expect to achieve a world without genocide, a world free of horrific war crimes and a world where every citizen's freedoms and rights are protected, then we need to recognize that some crimes go beyond the borders of any one nation and affect us all as human beings.

Unfortunately, the ICC has not received global support. While the ICC has been ratified by over 100 countries, many do not support the ICC's authority, including the United States. The U.S. has yet to join the ICC, citing a variety of reasons from the potential threat to national security to concerns with the ICC's jurisdiction over its citizens and its armed forces. This is in spite of the U.S.'s history of supporting international justice and leadership in creating other courts, including Nuremburg and the Rwandan and Yugoslavian tribunals.

The Obama Administration has taken steps to explore a more collaborative relationship with the ICC, but the United States can and should do more. The ICC is still in its early stages and the United States can play an important role in determining the ICC's work. We should explore the ways to engage with the ICC that protect U.S. citizens as well as support global human rights. We should show support for multilateralism against war criminals like Lubanga. If the United States is truly committed to championing human rights and if we want to be a global leader in the effort, then we must be part of this historic commitment to achieve justice for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Each of us can support humanity's courtroom by following and spreading the word about the Lubanga trial proceedings by visiting We must show humanity's worst criminals that the world is watching, that justice will prevail, and that "never again" is not an empty vow.

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