Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” but justice may be decided that way, too. In the 10 years since its inception, the International Criminal Court has found detractors who claim the court is biased. Supporters of the court argue that a permanent international criminal court to investigate, put on trial and judge people who commit genocide, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity is an important step forward for international justice and world peace.
Since the signing of the Rome Statute treaty and its entering into force in 2002, more than 120 states, including all of South America, nearly all of Europe and half of Africa, have ratified the treaty. Another 32 states have signed, but not yet ratified it.
Three states, Israel, Sudan and the United States have “unsigned” the Rome Statue, indicating that they do not intend to become party to its rulings, but they are clearly a minority.
Japan finally ratified the Rome Statute in 2007. That five-year delay was perhaps the result of being influenced by America’s refusal to allow its soldiers to fall under the court’s jurisdiction and perhaps because the ICC brought up bad memories of the post-World War II Tokyo Tribunals. Japan fortunately followed its better mind and joined the majority of states.
So far, the court has issued 20 arrest warrants and publicly indicted 28 people. Though these numbers may appear low, more than 4,000 victims have given testimony at proceedings.
Those numbers do not sufficiently reveal all the progress being made by the court. Establishing jurisdiction, rules of evidence and legal definitions takes time, especially on a global scale. Fortunately, that process is well under way.
Is the ICC a tool of Western powers as some claim, charging only those who lose in conflicts? That is one way to look at the court’s handling of people like Thomas Lubango Dyilo, the militia leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo, found guilty of the conscription of child soldiers, or Cote d’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo, in custody after being charged with murder, rape, persecution and inhuman acts.
A more realistic way to look at the court is to view it as the forefront of efforts to end the impunity of dictators, warlords and others who commit crimes under their jurisdiction. The court is as much about deterrence as about punishment.
With the ICC gaining greater prestige and force, leaders who attack civilians and commit violent acts know they will face accountability for their crimes.
The court’s work is a step forward for employing the rule of law, not ineffectual sanctions or military intervention, to stop the world’s worst crimes. That is a goal worth supporting.