The International Criminal Court is here to stay
The permanent premises of the International Criminal Court, the ICC, officially opened on Tuesday this week in The Hague, Netherlands, beside the dunes on the shores of the North Sea.
The new building combines innovative solutions purpose-made for a judicial institution with modern design reflecting the transparency and independence of the court.
Representatives of states from all over the world are gathered to celebrate the occasion. A groundbreaking institution in which they have invested enormous effort has finally settled in its permanent home.
The message of the ceremony is clear: the International Criminal Court is here to stay.
The opening of the court’s permanent premises testifies to an incredible journey that has taken place over more than two decades since the negotiations on the creation of the ICC started in the mid-1990s.
Today the court is fully operational, with more proceedings in its courtrooms than ever before. One hundred and twenty-four states have ratified the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the court, El Salvador being the latest to join last month.
We have reached this point against all odds.
A permanent international court that could prosecute individuals irrespective of their official position was a revolutionary idea. During the negotiations, many asked: Would states ever agree to establish an international body with such power?
Many did, because they recognised that genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes present such a serious threat to humankind that the international community has to come together to stop them. States saw the need for a collective structure, a court of last resort that could step in when national courts fail to address the matter themselves.
The ICC’s mandate is relevant everywhere. Where atrocities have occurred, international justice helps ensure that such crimes are addressed, that the perpetrators are held responsible and that victims receive justice.
In areas under the threat of conflict, the ICC is an invaluable tool in the prevention of large-scale violations of human rights. The credible likelihood of a legal process and accountability is key to effective deterrence of future crimes.
The court is equally important in places where international crimes may be unimaginable today. History teaches us that no country, no region is immune to war, conflicts or atrocities.
The ICC’s mandate is clear, but it cannot meet its goals without global co-operation and support.
As a judicial institution, the ICC is a distinct kind of international organisation. States established it, but they must respect its judicial independence. Interference with the court’s work would undermine the credibility of the very institution they created.
At the same time, the co-operation of states and organisations is necessary for the ICC’s ability to collect evidence, protect witnesses and arrest suspects. Without co-operation, the court cannot provide adequate reparations to the victims of crimes addressed by the Court.
The ICC is playing an important role in the efforts of the international community to ensure accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, whether they take the form of mass killings, persecution on ethnic grounds, rape as a weapon of war, use of child soldiers, large-scale torture, deportations or attacks on civilians.
But the ICC cannot do this everywhere. Misunderstandings about the ICC’s possibilities under its founding treaty have led to perceptions of selective justice. However, unless the UN Security Council decides to submit a situation to it, the court can only investigate when the countries concerned have voluntarily accepted its powers – and many of the world’s worst conflict zones are outside its reach.
Our states parties must continue efforts to encourage more countries to join the Rome Statute system of international criminal justice if they want to see an ICC that is able to address all crimes in an equal manner.
The International Criminal Court’s commitment to justice is stronger than ever, and the court is actively taking new initiatives to improve its efficiency and effectiveness to meet the challenges before it.
But the ICC cannot fight impunity alone. How effective it will be depends on the determination of the global community to make accountability for the most serious international crimes a non-negotiable objective.
As the ICC becomes more active and more effective, it faces increasing attacks from those that are opposed to its mandate. This is when the commitment of governments to international justice is put to a real test.
The inauguration of the ICC’s permanent premises gives us all, court officials, states and the international community as a whole, the opportunity to make a pause in our journey to celebrate what has already been achieved through our collective efforts to enhance accountability.
It also gives us the opportunity to reflect anew how we can best ensure together that the court’s new building becomes a true icon of justice for future generations. There has been incredible progress but also setbacks. The journey must continue.
Judge Silvia Fernández is president of the International Criminal Court