Marieke Wierda joins us for this fifth installation in our ongoing joint symposium with EJIL:Talk! on the ICC and its impacts on national prosecutions. Marieke is a PhD candidate at Leiden University and is an expert on transitional justice working at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Human Rights Watch report Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice describes an aspiration that many of the supporters of the International Criminal Court continue to harbor 20 years after the Rome Statute came into force. The report could be renamed “Tipping Point”: the aspiration of Human Rights Watch and others is that the existence, and actions of the ICC will decisively tip the scales of justice in favor of accountability for the world’s worst crimes at the international or domestic level.
Increasingly, the focus of advocates of the ICC has been fixed on the ICC’s impact at the domestic level. Long after its creation, the courtrooms in The Hague remain dramatically underutilized. As of 2018, the ICC had issued only four convictions: Thomas Lubanga Diyolo, convicted on 14 March 2012; Germain Katanga, convicted on 7 March 2014; Jean-Pierre Bemba, convicted on 21 March 2016; and Ahmed al-Farqi al-Mahdi, convicted on 27 September 2016 (pursuant to a guilty plea).
The Court faced many problems during these trials. In a major setback to the Office of the Prosecutor, on 8 June 2018 the Appeals Chamber acquitted Jean-Pierre Bemba. With only three convictions since 2002 (including a guilty plea), comparisons are inevitably made with the ICTY, which concluded proceedings against roughly 140 accused in 20 years with 18 were acquitted. In the age of austerity, where questions about cost versus impact of international interventions abound, this raises questions about the 1.5 billion Euro investment in the Court, and whether it really is the only road to the noble intentions that prevailed in Rome.
Hence the focus by HRW and others on the domestic level: “positive” complementarity through strengthening domestic legal systems gradually assumed such prominence amongst the ASP and supporters of the ICC that it was retroactively coined as perhaps the main impact of the Rome Statute. In the words of Burke-White: “encouraging national prosecutions within the “Rome System of Justice” and shifting burdens back to national governments offers the best and perhaps the only way for the ICC to meet its mandate and help end impunity.”
The question is what is the impact of the ICC, and how can it be measured? Is the existence of the ICC a game-changer in prompting domestic investigations and prosecutions? However, as this carefully researched report indicates, hope burns eternal. In fact, pressure exerted from the Office of the Prosecutor has yet to lead to significantly more prosecutions in the countries highlighted in the report. It appears that the existence of the ICC alone is not the magic bullet that advocates for the fight against impunity had imagined.
This is for several reasons. Crimes of the magnitude to fit the definitions of the Rome Statute are often committed in complex political conflicts in countries that suffer from a breakdown in the rule of law. The Court alone is not well placed to address these broader rule of law challenges, and with its current resources and the many situations under its purview, the Court is not even particularly well placed to analyze and decisively influence the political context.
Additionally, the Court’s current policies on case selection and prioritization mean that its focus will rest on a limited number of cases. In situations where national authorities lack political will, they can play a careful game of complicating admissibility of specific cases, rather than pursuing genuine accountability. Investigations of these crimes can be highly complex, and creating a game of fog and mirrors, at which some national authorities excel. This is particularly the case where state agents may be involved, as is the case in Colombia, Georgia and the UK. The Court’s interactions with national authorities have been more adversarial than amicable. Continue reading