International Criminal Court marks 20th anniversary

July 2, 2022

FILE – The exterior view of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, March 31, 2021. The International Criminal Court marked the 20th anniversary of its establishment Friday, July 1, 2022, as its prosecutors probed war crimes in countries around the world including what one expert called a “make or break” investigation in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

By Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands  — The International Criminal Court marked the 20th anniversary of its establishment Friday as its prosecutors probed war crimes in countries around the world, including what one expert called a “make or break” investigation in Ukraine.

The court, long criticized for tackling only crimes in Africa and failed prosecutions of senior leaders in Kenya and Ivory Coast, now has investigations underway in 17 countries, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, although the majority of cases are in Africa.

David Crane, the founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone that convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor and others as war criminals, said the Hague-based ICC is a crucial legal institution despite some criticism of its work.

“The ICC is the cornerstone now of how we deal with atrocity crimes at the international level,” Crane told The Associated Press. “With the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, the ICC must be the lead in holding President Vladimir Putin accountable. This is the ICC’s moment. They have to get this right.”

The court has registered only three war crimes convictions and five for interfering with justice in the 20 years since its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, came into force on July, 1, 2002. Without a police force of its own and relying on national authorities to carry out arrests, getting suspects to The Hague has been a problem from the outset and is likely to remain a critical stumbling block to meting out justice.

And that justice does not come cheap. The court’s budget for 2022 is nearly 155 million euros ($161 million), and it has spent more than 2.2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) over its two-decade life.

A total of 123 countries are members of the court and accept its jurisdiction, but global powers the United States, Russia and China do not. That means that if Prosecutor Karim Khan’s investigations in Ukraine lead to charges against Russian suspects, Moscow is not likely to willingly make them available for trial in The Hague.

Friday’s anniversary should be a moment to “reflect and to try to refresh the process of international justice,” Khan said. 

“If we work in a collective manner, I am confident that international justice can accelerate and advance and have the required impact,” he added. 

Human rights organization Amnesty International, however, criticized prosecutors’ decisions in recent years including to no investigate alleged crimes by British forces in Iraq and to “deprioritize” a probe into allegations of crimes by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard said that the “glimmer of hope” the ICC’s establishment had offered for victims of crimes that the perpetrators would be brought to justice has dimmed.

“But it has appeared to veer off course in recent years, with recent decisions by the ICC Prosecutor raising concerns that the court may be heading towards a hierarchical system of international justice,” she added in a statement that also criticized the prosecution office’s move to seek voluntary funding for its Ukraine investigation.

“ICC states parties must ensure that all of the court’s investigations and activities are fully funded – they must not use their resources and cooperation as tools to influence which situations and parties are investigated. Meanwhile, all states who have not yet done so, including Ukraine, must ratify the Rome Statute,” Amnesty said.

In a statement marking the anniversary, the European Union highlighted the ICC’s achievements and called on nations that have not yet joined to do so.

“Its landmark decisions have contributed to the fight against impunity and the development of international criminal jurisprudence, for example on sexual and gender-based crimes, the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts and the destruction of cultural property,” the EU said.

Crane conceded that the court, which only takes on cases when local authorities cannot or will not act, “has stumbled from time to time causing a mixed reputation of viability.”

Despite that, “the ICC is a worthy international effort that must be supported. Frankly, we cannot let it fail,” he said. “What the ICC does with its work in Ukraine is a make or break moment.”

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