On July 10th, 2018, the Washington Working Group on the ICC (WICC) convened a congressional briefing on the International Criminal Court (ICC) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute. This multilateral treaty founded the ICC as the world’s only permanent international tribunal with a mandate to investigate and prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes (“atrocity crimes”).
The event was hosted by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with the Open Society Foundations, American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights, and the ABA’s ICC Project. The panel was moderated by Michael Greco, Chair of ABA’s Project on the International Criminal Court, and featured Professor Alex Whiting of Harvard Law School; Prof. Susana SáCouto, Director of the War Crimes Research Office at American University’s Washington College of Law; and Raymond Brown, Founder of the International Justice Project and Enrolled Counsel at the ICC.
The briefing assessed the ICC and its accomplishments, successes, and failures in its sixteen (16) years of existence. In his opening remarks, Whiting began with an overview of the ad hoc tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, whose successes helped build the establishment of the ICC. Operationalizing the ICC to scale over the past sixteen (16) years has been an enormous undertaking; today the ICC has eleven (11) active investigations in ten (10) countries and has done so with minimal budget increases. With potential politically-sensitive investigations into alleged atrocity crimes in Palestine and Afghanistan, the Court is wading into challenging waters ahead. However, Whiting concluded by emphasizing that the ICC and international criminal justice are here to stay and urged that US policy towards the Court needs to reorient itself to reflect this reality.
SáCouto stressed in her remarks the ICC’s failure to issue a final conviction for sexual and gender based violence. On June 8th, 2018, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC reversed the conviction of the former Democratic Republic of the Congo military commander, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including gender and sexual based violence committed by his troops in the Central African Republic. This disappointing acquittal, SáCouto noted, highlights the frequency with which sexual violence crimes go unpunished.
Finally, Brown drew on his experience representing Darfuri victims in the case against Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. The ICC case against Bashir importantly recognized the crisis in Darfur in trial, Brown noted in his opening remarks. Moreover, despite political hostility towards the Court, the George W. Bush administration played a critical role in securing the necessary votes for a United Nations Security Council referral of the situation in Darfur to the ICC. The arrest warrant for Bashir was issued in 2009, yet today he remains at-large.
The Bashir case underscored a key point all panelists made: that the success and failures of the ICC depend on the support and cooperation it receives from the international community. The ICC has made crimes against humanity and accountability part of a global conversation. The panelists concluded by emphasizing the necessity for justice for victims of atrocity crimes at all levels; the ICC is only one part of a broader effort.