Acquittals and the Battleground Over the ICC’s Legitimacy

Victims, survivors and their relatives of the 2010 electoral violence in Ivory Coast gather in Abidjan (Photo: AFP)

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.

The Prosecution

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.

For Gbagbo, Blé Goudé, and their fervent supporters, the acquittals may not lead them to believe that the ICC as a whole is credible. However, they must surely believe that the trial process got it ‘right’ in acquitting them and was, therefore, fair. They may not have expected acquittals, but they got them, and the ICC therefore, may well have exceeded their expectations.

Victims and Survivors

But what of victims and survivors – who choose to engage in trial proceedings counting on their expectations of justice being met? Those who decided to participate in the trials of Gbagbo, former Congolese Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba (also acquitted), or Kenyan President and Deputy President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (cases dropped), have every right to be livid with the outcomes. Not only do they not get justice, but their victimhood and suffering are undermined when a case collapses or results in an acquittal. Whatever explanation is offered is unlikely to assuage their pain and concerns.

Of course, we need to interrogate who elevates the expectations of victims and to temper them in the future.  But it is clear that many victims have lost faith in the ability of the Court to dispense justice.

The Ivory Coast 

What of the decision’s impact in Côte d’Ivoire? Gbagbo’s supporters are thrilled with the acquittal and the prospect of their former leader’s return. If he does return – a prospect that is not clear, given that Gbagbo faces charges of corruption in Ivory Coast – he would almost certainly re-emerge as a major political player. This too could have palpable effects on the ICC’s credibility.

If Gbagbo were to run for president, would he campaign on his ‘triumph’ in The Hague? Bemba was preparing to do just that when he returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, using a photograph from his trial in his social media profiles. In Kenya, the political spin around the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto famously helped them be elected to the highest posts in the country, with a public relations firm using the ICC cases to drum up political support. All of this leads to a rather uncomfortable question: does being prosecuted by the ICC help the political careers of some politicians? That should surely not be something one expects from the Court.

States Parties and the ‘International Community’

ICC member-states represent another important constituency when it comes to evaluating the ICC’s legitimacy. They are increasingly result-driven. They want a ‘return on their investment’. For many, that means more convictions, especially for high-profile figures like Gbagbo, Bemba, or Kenyatta. But the most supportive states are also curiously placed in the legitimacy game, precisely because they are investors in the ICC. As such, even though they aren’t happy with the Court’s performance, they invariably share some of the legitimacy gains or losses of the Court as a reflection of the wisdom of their political investments.

Finally, it is important to note a ‘silver lining’ in the acquittal of Gbagbo, namely that it makes it more difficult to sustain the argument that the ICC “hunts” African statesmen. The expectation that the ICC seeks only to lock away despotic African leaders is weakened when the likes of Kenyatta, Bemba, and Gbagbo are set free.

Reactions to the Gbagbo acquittal reveal the diversity of the Court’s audience. Legitimacy is negotiated simultaneously across multiple constituencies which have divergent expectations of the ICC; therefore, they measure the institution’s legitimacy in different, even incompatible, ways. As a result, virtually everything that happens at the ICC can be seen as both contributing to and detracting from the institution’s legitimacy. That should be a lesson for observers of the Court: things are never as good or as bad as they seem.

A version of this piece was originally posted at OpenGlobalRights.


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).
This entry was posted in International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Justice, Ivory Coast / Côte d'Ivoire, Ivory Coast and the ICC, Laurent Gbagbo. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Acquittals and the Battleground Over the ICC’s Legitimacy

  1. El roam says:

    Interesting, but not really relevant with all due respect. First, using that term ” legitimacy ” is wrong. Legitimacy, refers rather, to a situation, where the very existence and actions of an entity or person as such, are deviating that much from moral or legal norms, that, they no longer can be held as valid in moral terms. Imagine for example, a person elected as president, but, his function, his actions are so badly and fundamentally flawed, that he is legally to be considered as president, but can no longer, get the support as legitimate one. More concrete example would be :

    When such president, would ignore and disobey decisions given by courts. Then, he would be considered as no longer legitimate.So,this is not the case of the ICC in noway. Yet :

    One may refer then, as done in that post, to the level of professionalism of the court or staff of the court. Then :

    In order for it, to be considered, as illegitimate, due strictly to professionalism, we need such level, of flawed performance, that it doesn’t make sense it seems, concerning the ICC. But,Whatsoever :

    When dealing with convictions as criteria, as has been done in that post, we need not to be smart after the fact,but rather : smart in fact. That is to say :

    Whether, at first place, in ” on line ” terms,at the time, when charges were pressed, one could and should have noticed or observe, that at first place, it had no chance to secure convictions. Briefly,that one could say back then, that, it was in advance, waste of time. The result, the course to acquittal, was set up and could be observed as such, yet, indictments had been produced.

    Can one say it ?? Don’t think so at all!

    For the rest, we won’t stay young here no more….


  2. Pingback: Acquittals and the Battleground Over the ICC’s Legitimacy – Jehtro Lewis – Blog

  3. MH. Zakerhossein says:

    A rather comprehensive overview of various aspects of the Court’s recent decision. A good advice to all observers: badness and goodness are relative. However, a questionable conceptuality of legitimacy/?!

  4. Pingback: La guerra en Ucrania y la legitimidad de la Corte Penal Internacional - VACICC

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