Opinion: ICC can still bring about ‘a new age of accountability’

In a world preoccupied by the economic recession, you might be forgiven for thinking this is not the time to be upbeat.

Akbar Khan
Akbar Khan

But that view would be wrong.

In early June world leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society came together in Kampala, Uganda, to support the first review conference of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), reaffirming their commitment to combating global impunity and achieving justice for victims of the worst atrocities – namely, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

Established by the Rome Statute in 1998, the review conference offered the first opportunity to take stock of The Hague-based ICC’s impact over the eight years since it opened for business in 2002.

With an annual budget of around e100m (£83.4m), a staff of 700 and five ongoing investigations in Africa – but with eight fugitives still beyond the reach of the judges, including one sitting head of state, and not one completed trial to its name – the day of reckoning seemed to have arrived for the ICC. But rather than lament an apparent lack of progress, leaders from every corner of the globe committed ­themselves to do better in ­support of the ’court of last resort’ they had set up in 1998 to prosecute ­perpetrators of crimes of concern to the international community where a state is “unable or unwilling to do so”.

Leaders recognised that, without the international community’s help in doing the heavy lifting by way of political, ­financial and logistical support in ­arresting fugitives and surrendering
them, the ICC would fail. So, while reaffirming that there can be no lasting peace without justice, they resolved to promote justice for the victims of ­unimaginable atrocities.

They also agreed, in the final hours of the conference, to adopt provisions ­defining the crime of aggression and ­conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction.

So what does the future hold for the world’s first permanent criminal court post-Kampala? The answer must surely include speedier trials, enhanced ­cooperation from states and more support and coordination to catalyse national prosecutions to help close the impunity gap. But to do this the ICC must get more states to join the Rome Statute and make criminal justice truly universal.

A court without trials is not a credible institution. The longer fugitives remain at large, the more damage is done to the ICC’s deterrent effect. The ICC needs to streamline its trials through tighter ­judicial case management in the interests of justice and efficiency. Justice delayed is justice denied.

But the greatest focus in the years to come must be on supporting national legal ­systems in undertaking prosecutions that complement the work of the ICC. As a court of last resort with a limited budget, the ICC will never be able to prosecute more than a handful of senior perpetrators. Mid- to low-level perpetrators must be ­prosecuted at the national level or impunity will flourish.

International organisations such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, along with civil society actors and bilateral donors committed to promoting the rule of law at the national level through capacity-building and technical assistance programmes, will be key to bringing about this reality.

Patience must be shown. Building ­effective national legal systems to ­prosecute complex crimes takes time and money. Despite this, we must not be thwarted in our collective resolve to secure justice for victims. To echo the words of UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon: “The era of impunity is over, we are ­witnessing the birth of a new age of accountability.”