In the world of international criminal justice, it would be easy to think that the ICC’s website is a trivial matter. But it’s not. So I was thrilled to read that Kevin Jon Heller has written a brief but critically important plea to the ICC to update its website:
The ICC’s website is its public face. Scholars, activists, and interested laypeople — many who live in the situations under investigation — rely on it as their primary source of information about the Court’s activities. So it is imperative that the Court update its website in a timely fashion.Time and again, however, it does not…The ICC always emphasizes the need for effective outreach. It should start by keeping its website up to date.
I could not agree more. Over the last few years, I have experienced and been told countless times how poor and inaccessible the ICC’s website is. It is shockingly bad. Documents are incredibly difficult to locate. On days when important rulings are issued and when the site needs to be running smoothly so that people (especially in affected countries) can watch proceedings and see justice done, it has simply shut down. And it is not only the interested observer and academic who have a hard time with the site; I have heard that ICC staff often can’t rely on the website either.
All of this begs the question: what has prevented the Court from changing its website? An obvious answer would be financial resources. The Court has had its budget tightened over the last few years with almost no year-to-year growth, despite an increasing caseload. Still, at some point updating the website simply has to be worth it. Not doing so will bare costs and consequences – and already is.
As I have argued recently in the case of Kenya, the ICC is losing the ‘perception game’. To some extent, this is inevitable. The Court simply doesn’t have the resources to counter the messaging machine of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto. Their skilful messaging of the indictments against them helped them to achieve victory in Kenya’s recent elections. But the ICC could certainly do a lot more to counter their messaging through online communication strategies.
In my view, the question of the ICC’s bias against Africa has also been dealt with quite poorly by the Court. Again, the Court doesn’t have nearly enough resources to counter this messaging. But repeating the same messages about the number of African states parties, the ICC being a “Court for Africa”, and so on, hasn’t helped convince skeptics. Does anyone who originally believed that the ICC was somehow biased against Africa not think so today? Probably not. The perception that the Court is neo-colonialist and anti-African has burgeoned and solidified. Now when the ICC opens an official investigation into the first non-African state it will likely be seen as a political response to the accusations against the Court.
In short, the lack of a responsive, provoking and accessible web communication strategy by the ICC gives space for powerful actors to undermine the Court. It may be inevitable that these actors win when it comes to traditional media, like newspapers, radio and TV, where money rules. But it shouldn’t be so easy for them when it comes to new social media platforms, where money rarely dictates what stories carry the day.
While it is important to understand the limitations of what a heavily constrained Court can do, the time is ripe for a far more active communication strategy on the part of the ICC. The material is there: the Court and its work are exciting – enough for a TV show to be made about it! Not a day goes by that it isn’t in the news. But the Court does not do enough to communicate its work in an accessible manner, especially within the world of social media. A coherent, creative and interest-grabbing web presence (not just on the website but on Twitter and Facebook) would be a (very) cheap and effective way to help counter some of the messaging that seeks to undermine the Court. These mediums could become fora of interaction and learning. The benefit is obvious: the creation of a loyal and informed legion of supporters.
The Court’s website is its portal to the rest of the world. It should be easily accessible, interactive, and user-friendly. It should be a place that the most active observers and practitioners can rely on and it should be a place where anyone with an interest can learn about the ICC. As it stands, the website too often turns people away, undermining the ultimate interests of the Court and of justice.