ICC celebrates 20th anniversary with Ukraine in sight

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The Hague (AFP) – The International Criminal Court celebrates its 20th anniversary on Friday, with the war in Ukraine giving the court new momentum after two decades of criticism and controversy.

Since its founding Rome Statute entered into force on July 1, 2002, the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal has had a mediocre record of just five convictions.

But the Hague-based ICC remains the court of last resort for serious charges such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression, when member states are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent ICC investigation into alleged war crimes have made the international community aware of the importance of the rule of law, says ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan.

“If we don’t obey the law today, I think there’s very little hope for anyone tomorrow,” Khan told AFP in an interview in May.

“This growing awareness has been made more acute by the events of February 24 and events in Ukraine – and I think that is long overdue.”

The ICC is hosting a special 20th anniversary conference on Friday to mark the occasion, with speakers including its current president Piotr Hofmanski and prosecutor Khan.

“Lofty Goals”

The Court says the event is “an opportunity to reflect on how the ICC has lived up to expectations”.

But those expectations have always been high.

The ICC is the successor to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, when the post-war international order sought an ideal of global justice.

Tribunals over the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 also laid the groundwork for a permanent tribunal.

The Rome Statute was signed in 1998 and entered into force four years later, allowing the Court to finally open its doors.

Yet since then he has failed to ensnare any senior government leader, and his five convictions to date have all been against African rebels, including a former child soldier.

“When considering the legacy of the ICC in light of its lofty goals, the results are negligible,” Thijs Bouwknegt of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies told AFP.

It has had resounding failures, with former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo being cleared, former DR Congo Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba acquitted on appeal and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta being dropped.

The ICC opened its doors 20 years ago but has failed to ensnare any senior government leaders, and its five convictions to date have all been of African rebels Martijn Beekman ANP/AFP/Dossier

Equally detrimental is the absence of key players.

The United States, which signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but never ratified it, has at times been actively hostile, at one point sanctioning the tribunal for its investigation into Afghanistan.

China, Israel, Myanmar and Syria also stayed away, as did Russia, which even reportedly sent a spy posing as a trainee to target the ICC investigation into Ukraine.

“Armageddon Recipe”

But while there have been “fair” criticisms of the ICC, the court has made a “significant contribution”, said Victoria Kerr of the Hague-based Asser Institute for International and European Law.

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, will speak at a special 20th anniversary conference on Friday
The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, will speak at a special 20th anniversary conference on Friday JOHN THYS AFP/File

“The ICC is not a panacea, and its effectiveness should not be measured solely on its beliefs,” Kerr told AFP.

In recent years, the tribunal has sought to improve, with new investigations into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Venezuela and the Philippines.

It is now in Ukraine that the court has the opportunity to prove its credentials.

Khan said recent support from 43 states for the ICC’s Ukraine investigation was “not just because of what’s happening in Ukraine.”

“When we look at international law as an a la carte menu that states can choose from… that’s the recipe for Armageddon,” he told AFP.

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