How the ICC’s Website is Undermining the Court – and Justice

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 11.20.17 AMIn 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.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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6 Responses to How the ICC’s Website is Undermining the Court – and Justice

  1. redpoz says:

    coudn’t agree more.
    the ECCC in Cambodia has a pretty bad web site either (perhaps even because of the difficulties with the khmer language), but at least they’re trying to work a lot on facebook and other media

  2. David K says:

    Thanks to Kevin and to you for drawing attention to this. Last week was particularly frustrating for ICC followers. Your post raises a number of interesting questions (e.g. how far can the Court go in promoting itself without being seen as political? – a key factor shaping the initially cautious approach to communications in the early Bush era) – but I’ll restrict myself to commenting on the web site issue.

    Whereas financial constraints are clearly a huge challenge for outreach (which is defined as aimed at affected communities, not scholars, etc.) it’s not so clear that this is the same for the web site (except maybe when it comes to the issue of having the capacity to support streaming video on busy days). A lot of time and money was invested in the web site (this is version 2.0), but it’s difficult to assess exactly how much of the constraint is financial for two reasons: 1. the ICC budgeting process is annual making it harder to assess multi-year costs like developing a web site. 2. many of the costs may be distributed throughout the Court (PIDS, ICT, CMS, etc.) making it hard to get a project cost. The recent report of the CBF indicates PIDS submitted a Zero Based Budget which partly addresses issue 1 (Hopefully this will be made public as the lack of publicity of CBF documents is another concern). The CBF has also been working on issue 2 but this is at an early stage. For the latest on both, see paras 39-45 of the new CBF report.

    That said, I would venture that some of the basic problems with the web site are more related to issues of management (both process and culture) than finance. 2 illustrations: First, there is a clear duplication between the ICC Court Records and the OTP Legal Tools project. The Legal Tools project has a much handier search capability, showing what could be done, than the web-based Court records (although something similar exists internally), but the OTP Legal Tools project as an externally-managed project which requires the documents to come from the Court is even less up-to-date. Second, when you look at the menu on the web site, the first choice after “About the Court” is “Structure of the Court” (and then if you look at the bottom of the web site you see something similar with boxes for OTP and Registry). This reflects an unfortunate institutionalist and territorial way of thinking about the Court which pervades the web site (and many other aspects of the Court’s functioning). Getting the Court to view its communications from the viewpoint of the target audience rather than from the institutional roles and functions of its components is necessary before the web site can be made effective.

    It’s easier to spot these sorts of problems of course than to fix them. Technically, the solutions are easy (and some such as putting the documents up earlier should be fixed quickly), but effecting the necessary changes in management processes and culture are much more difficult. Strong leadership will be key. The new Registrar has big challenges facing him. Hopefully he will be able to rally the necessary support within the Registry and from the other organs.

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