For many, the recent acquittal of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and his political ally, Charles Blé Goudé, marked another failure for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Many close observers were undoubtedly pained to see another high-profile case collapse, leaving the Court with the dubious distinction of having yet to successfully prosecute a government official in its seventeen years of existence. But initial reactions obfuscated the invariably mixed effects that such developments have on the Court’s legitimacy.
Of course, ‘legitimacy’ is a notoriously slippery concept. For our purposes, I define legitimacy as a measure of the distance between expectations and reality. The closer reality lines up to (or exceeds) expectations, the more legitimate the institution. If reality doesn’t live up to expectations, then we have the inverse situation: a legitimacy gap. Whether acquittals bolster or blemish the ICC’s legitimacy depends on whose expectations we are considering.
Many people expect the ICC to convict. This is due to at least three dynamics. First, the ICC generally focuses on those “most responsible” for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. As a result, we expect that if the Court issues an arrest warrant for someone, they must be the “most responsible” – and therefore guilty.
Second and relatedly, only a tiny fraction of perpetrators in any given situation are targeted by the ICC. In the Ivory Coast, that amounts to three figures: Gbagbo, Blé Goudé, and former First Lady Simone Gbagbo. This selectivity propels the notion that these few individuals must bear responsibility for the crimes they have been charged with.
Third, the public face of the ICC is the Prosecutor, and because she is the most visible and vocal personality in the Court, this feeds into perceptions that the institution’s primary role is to successfully prosecute – rather than put people on trial.
For many people, then, the Prosecutor’s legitimacy suffers with acquittals precisely because they expect the Prosecutor to secure convictions.
Gbagbo and his Defence
Yet, this view neglects the importance of the defence to the legitimacy of the Court. Sareta Ashpraph, for example, stated in response to the Gbagbo acquittal that we should “be thankful” and recognize the role of the defence in ensuring fair trials. From this perspective, the acquittal of Gbagbo therefore contributes, rather than detracts, from the legitimacy of the ICC because acquittals demonstrate respect for due process and a functioning criminal court.
This shows just how many strands of ‘legitimacy’ are present at any time. The ICC’s legitimacy can suffer and prosper with acquittals. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the law and due process is functioning above the political prerogative of getting convictions. On the other, it suggests that something is wrong with the way that the prosecution is building cases and prosecuting its targets. Continue reading