/ 2 July 2012

Ten years of the International Criminal Court

A newspaper vendor sells the day's papers carrying in the headlines photos of four Kenyans to face charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court
A newspaper vendor sells the day's papers carrying in the headlines photos of four Kenyans to face charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court

On July 1 2002, the first three staff members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) entered the ICC's building in The Hague, the Netherlands. On that day, the ICC's founding treaty, called the Rome Statute, entered into force. 

Ten years after that modest beginning, the ICC has turned into a major international institution, securing justice for victims when it cannot be delivered at the national level. Some 121 states have ratified the Rome Statute, and another 32 countries have signed it, indicating their intention to join the treaty. 

The ICC is working in seven situation countries, and monitoring developments in seven others on several continents, turning the principles of the Rome Statute into reality. In March this year, the ICC delivered its first judgment in a case concerning the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Six cases are in the trial stage and nine others in pre-trial phase. These proceedings are testimony that impunity for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity is no longer tolerated by the international community.

The victims are a vital part of the ICC's work. Thousands of victims have been given a voice in the arena of international justice, where their rights are upheld and their suffering recognised. The ICC's proceedings have emphasised, on a global scale, that children cannot be used as soldiers during hostilities, that sexual violence as a weapon of war is an unacceptable international crime, and that those in positions of power must safeguard the fundamental human rights of people caught in conflict.

Support for international justice is growing around the world every year. Everywhere, people want peace, justice, rule of law and respect for human dignity. The ICC represents the voluntary gathering of nations in a community of values and aspirations for a more secure future for children, women and men around the world.

However, rather than rejoice over our accomplishments, it is far more important that we recognise the shortcomings and the obstacles that remain, and redouble our commitment to further strengthen the Rome Statute system in order to move closer to our ultimate goals. If we act wisely, pulling our strength together, we can prevent terrible suffering before it takes place. 

The ICC is the centrepiece of the evolving system of international criminal justice, but the most important aspect of the fight against impunity takes place in each country, society and community around the globe. Domestic justice systems must be strong enough to be able to act as the primary deterrent worldwide, while the ICC is a "court of last resort", a safety net that ensures accountability when the national jurisdictions are unable for whatever reason to carry out this task. 

In a spirit of solidarity, the states parties to the Rome Statute have expressed their commitment to work together to ensure that this principle of complementarity is effective.

Another crucial aspect of the ICC is the cooperation of states and the enforcement of the court's orders. The ICC has no police force of its own. The court relies entirely on states to execute our arrest warrants, to produce evidence, to facilitate the appearance of witnesses and so on. Unfortunately, several suspects subject to ICC arrest warrants have successfully evaded arrest for many years. Political will and international cooperation is crucial in order to bring these persons to justice. 

While we work together to prevent impunity and to ensure accountability, we must remember that international criminal justice is one piece in a bigger framework for protecting human rights, suppressing conflict and working for peace and stabilisation. It is vital that other essential elements of conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery are present where needed, alongside international justice mechanisms. Only when accompanied by education, democracy and development, can justice truly help prevent the crimes of the future.

Let us cherish our spirit of solidarity as we look forward to the ICC's next decade, celebrating our achievements and acknowledging the challenges that remain ahead. We must be united in our resolve to defeat impunity and the lawlessness, brutality and disdain for human dignity that it represents. 

At this crucial juncture, we must continue the fight against impunity with renewed resolve and increased vigour. We cannot rest until every victim has received justice. 

On the 10th anniversary of the International Criminal Court, I call on states, organisations and people everywhere to join this shared mission of humanity. 

Judge Sang-Hyun Song is the president of the International Criminal Court