20 years of the ICC: the importance of accountability
The International Criminal Court (ICC) turns 20 on July 1st. The Court is at the forefront of the global fight to end impunity and to hold accountable those responsible for grave crimes such as genocide and war crimes. And it is no coincidence that the ICC is located in The Hague, the international city of peace and justice. Looking back, what has been the contribution of the ICC over the past two decades? Among other things, the ICC has brought prominence to the concept of accountability.
Two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, pictures started appearing all over social media of road signs in Ukraine modified with tape and paint. All roads now appeared to lead to The Hague. The Ukrainians’ message was clear: those responsible for the crimes being committed in Ukraine would be tried before the ICC, in the international city of peace and justice, and held accountable for what they’d done.
The ICC was established 20 years ago. By 1 July 2002, over sixty countries had ratified the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute, paving the way for the Court to be established. Although the Statute had been adopted four years earlier, national parliaments needed time to discuss it. The ICC became the first permanent court for the prosecution of people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Currently 123 countries are States Parties to the Rome Statute.
The ICC becomes involved when a country is unwilling or unable to take legal action against the suspected perpetrators of serious crimes.
It is important to point out that the ICC is meant to complement rather than replace national courts. It becomes involved when a country is unwilling or unable to take legal action against the suspected perpetrators of serious crimes. The ICC is therefore currently investigating crimes under the Rome Statute committed on Ukrainian territory. The Court’s mission is to end impunity for those who would otherwise go unpunished and to bring justice to victims.
The ICC is often confused with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is also located in The Hague. The ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It settles legal disputes between member states and gives advisory opinions to the UN on legal questions. The ICC is sometimes also confused with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is headquartered in the Peace Palace in The Hague. It was established in 1899 following the first Hague Peace Conference, convened at the initiative of Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
The International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction covers four main crimes: Genocide: the killing of all or part of a specific population. War crimes: breaches of international humanitarian law or human rights law. Crimes against humanity: serious crimes committed against any civilian population, whether or not in the context of armed conflict. Crimes of aggression: the planning, preparation, initiation or execution of armed conflict by a person or state. The Court’s power to prosecute crimes of aggression is very limited. It applies only to the crimes committed on the territory or by nationals of the state parties that have accepted the amendments, and few countries have done so.
It is no coincidence that the ICC is located in The Hague. At the time the ICC was established, the Dutch city was already home to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which investigated crimes committed during the war in Yugoslavia (1991-2001).
‘The ICTY proceedings were important for many reasons, not least because rape was recognised as a war crime for the first time,’ says Stephanie van den Berg, a Dutch journalist for Reuters who specialises in international law. For her work, Van den Berg followed cases before the ICTY and the ICC. ‘And the ICTY ruled that the events that took place in Srebrenica constituted genocide. It was the first time since the Second World War that a court had ruled there had been genocide on European soil.’
With courts such as the ICTY and later the ICC located in The Hague, now more than ever the city is fittingly called the international city of peace and justice. There are now more than 130 international institutions located in The Hague, including the ICC, Europol and other organisations that are active in the area of peace and justice.
‘The ICTY brought a lot of people with expertise in international law to The Hague,’ says Van den Berg. ‘Lawyers, judges and jurists, all specialised in international humanitarian law. I see many of the same faces at the ICC that I saw at the ICTY. And that makes sense – the cases and relevant case law are similar. Even the people who were in charge of public information at the ICTY are now responsible for live streaming the hearings at the ICC. The Hague has established a good name for itself in the world of international law. And considering the institutions in The Hague, both past and present, and the people affiliated with them, its reputation is well deserved.’
In recent years there’s been a lot of criticism of the ICC. Van den Berg says, ‘The cases at the ICC take a long time and there have been few convictions, all of which were in cases involving African countries.’
The situation in Ukraine is different. ‘Since day one of the war there has been speculation about whether Putin might ever be prosecuted at the ICC. It remains to be seen whether that will actually happen, but it’s unthinkable today not to talk about the crimes being committed and who is responsible. Accountability has become a key concept, and that’s in large part thanks to the work of the ICC.’
The war in Ukraine has also affected the ICC in another way. Van den Berg says, ‘From day one the ICC has been investigating the crimes committed in Ukraine. A lot of funding has been made available for this. That’s pretty interesting, considering that the ICC’s workload has been expanding every year, and every year state parties have cut the budget. In that regard, the war in Ukraine could be a real turning point for the ICC.’