International Court (ICC)

7 August 2003

Why We Need an International Criminal Court

By Gwynne Dyer

Plea-bargaining happens in most courts, so nobody was upset last month when former Serbian police officer Darko Mrdja, after a year in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, changed his plea to guilty of having massacred over 200 Croatian and Muslim men in August, 1992. He will probably get a lighter sentence, but the court will save a lot of time, and maybe Mrdja will testify against his former colleagues as well.

In an imperfect world, this sort of corner-cutting can be tolerated, but what are we to make of the haggling that is going on to get indicted war criminal Charles Taylor out of the presidency in Liberia? He wants an amnesty as the price of leaving, and it looks like he’s going to get it.

The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has already lost one of its big fish, Foday Sankoh, the back-country warlord who chopped off hands, arms and legs in a reign of terror that killed 70,000 Sierra Leoneans. Sankoh died of a stroke this year after over two years in custody, but no trial. Now it’s likely to lose Charles Taylor as well.

Taylor trained with Sankoh in Libyan guerilla camps, and even before his own rebel movement came to power in Liberia in 1997, he was in league with Sankoh to keep Sierra Leone in turmoil so that they could jointly loot the country’s rich diamond deposits. The Special Court for Sierra Leone issued a 17-count indictment against Taylor in June, but restoring peace in Liberia means getting Taylor out, and it’s simpler and cheaper to do it with his cooperation. So moves to give him “a safe haven” in Nigeria began in early July.

“Nigeria will not be harassed by any organisation, or by any country, for showing this humanitarian gesture,” said Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo. He need not worry, for the Special Court in Sierra Leone has little reach beyond that country’s borders: the man who is responsible for around 200,000 deaths in Liberia will probably get away scot-free. And this is why we need the International Criminal Court.

Current attempts to bring genocidal killers to justice around the world are scattered and stumbling. Cambodia has just announced that only the ten most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will stand trial for the slaughter of the killing fields’ that cost 1.7 million lives in the late 70s. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander himself, was able to limit the trials to this relative handful, a quarter-century late and before a tame local court, because no established international authority could insist on anything else.

Or look at the US and British attempts to remove Carla Del Ponte as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The stated reason is because she is too busy as chief prosecutor for former Yugoslavia, but it’s really about stopping her from expanding the indictments beyond members of the former Hutu government to include members of the current Tutsi-led government of Rwanda. Since she serves at the pleasure of the Security Council, the US and Britain may well get their way.

If no permanent and independent body has the authority to deal with this sort of crimes, then it will be politics that decides who is punished and who gets off. The International Criminal Court, which came into formal legal existence on 1 July 2002, was designed to move the world on from that primitive system. But it is under heavy assault by the current US administration, which loathes the very idea of the ICC. Why?

The United States says that it fears that American service personnel engaged in international peacekeeping operations might become victims of nuisance prosecutions brought by the ICC, whose judges it does not control. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently pointed out, however, no UN peacekeeper of any nationality has ever been accused of a crime “anywhere near the crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC”: mass rape and mass murder, genocide, even cannibalism. The real US objection is ideological.

The ICC has become an obsession of the Bush administration, which sees all international structures that are beyond Washington’s control as potentially hostile curbs on the exercise of American power. Latterly Washington has even been cutting military aid to poor countries that refuse to sign treaties promising never to hand American personnel over to the ICC.

Yet the ICC is up and running. Its eighteen judges — distinguished jurists from eighteen different countries — were selected last year, and chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor of the Argentine junta, was inaugurated in June. There are two hundred files awaiting investigation (not one of them involving Americans), and the first case brought before the court will probably deal with the horrors committed in the Congo civil war.

It will take time for the ICC to have an impact, because it cannot deal with crimes committed before July, 2002. It will take even more time because of American attempts to sabotage it, but since US hostility is driven by ideology rather than national interest, that could change as soon as the next administration. The goal is to create a single standard and a single authority for dealing with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when local governments are unable or unwilling to act. Ten years from now we will probably be a lot closer to that goal.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Nigeria…court”; and “Or look…way”)