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Ukraine gives ICC a new purpose after 20 troubled years

#Ukraine #ICC #purpose #troubled #years

Its first two decades brought criticism and controversy, but as the International Criminal Court celebrates its 20th anniversary, the war in Ukraine gives it new impetus.

Since Rome’s founding statute went into effect on July 1, 2002, the world’s only permanent war crimes court has had a poor record with just five convictions.

The Hague-based ICC is also accused of focusing on African suspects and suffers from the absence of key countries like the United States, China, Russia and Israel.

But it 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 has reminded the international community of the importance of the rule of law, says ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan.

“If we don’t comply with the law today, I think there is very little hope for tomorrow,” Khan told AFP.

“This growing realization was made even more acute by the events of February 24 and the events in Ukraine – and I think it is long overdue.”

The ICC will hold a special 20th anniversary conference on Friday, which will be “an opportunity to reflect on how well the ICC has lived up to expectations”.

And those expectations have always been high.

– “High goals” –

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 on the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the Rwandan genocide in 1994 also laid the groundwork for a permanent court.

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

But it has since failed to capture senior government leaders, and its five convicts so far have all been African rebels, including a former child soldier.

“If you look at the legacy of the ICC given its lofty goals, the results are negligible,” Thijs Bouwknegt of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies told AFP.

It had high-profile failures, with former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo being acquitted, former DR Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba acquitted on appeal and charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta dropped.

Equally damaging is the absence of key players.

The United States, which signed but never ratified the Rome Statute in 2000, has been actively hostile at times, once sanctioning the court for its Afghanistan probe.

China, Israel, Myanmar and Syria have also stayed away, along with Russia — which is said to have even sent a spy posing as an intern to target the International Criminal Court’s Ukraine probe.

But while there was “deserved” criticism of the ICC, the court made a “significant contribution,” said Victoria Kerr of the Asser Institute for International and European Law in The Hague.

“The ICC is not a panacea, nor should its effectiveness be measured solely by its convictions,” Kerr told AFP.

– ‘Recipe for Armageddon’ –

In recent years, the court has tried to improve.

New investigations into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines have brought the ICC into some of the world’s most contentious conflicts.

Khan said when he took office last year that he wanted to “fix” the ICC’s record.

Bouwknegt, however, said Khan’s decision to “deprioritize” alleged US crimes in Afghanistan and focus on the Taliban and Islamic State “shows that the court is still curtsying to the most powerful.”

In Ukraine, the court now has a chance to prove its legitimacy.

Khan said the recent 43-state support for the International Criminal Court’s Ukraine probe was “not just because of what is happening in Ukraine.”

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

Long underfunded and understaffed, the International Criminal Court has seen a surge in Western support since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including help from dozens of foreign investigators.

But Ukraine also poses the same key difficulties that the ICC has faced over the past two decades.

“The biggest challenge will be bringing high-level offenders to justice,” Kerr said.

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