In the week that global civil society gathers in The Hague for its annual roundtable meeting with the International Criminal Court, ICC President Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi reflects on the crucial role of the Coalition for the ICC in advancing, and safeguarding, the Rome Statute system of international criminal justice. A contribution to our 20th anniversary blog series When hope and history rhyme.
On 19 April 2016, the permanent premises of the International Criminal Court officially opened in The Hague, Netherlands, by the dunes on the shores of the North Sea. It was the culmination of a long journey that began more than 20 years ago, since the negotiations on the creation of the ICC started in the mid-1990s. That journey would not have been possible without the contributions of civil society, in particular the key role played by the Coalition for an International Criminal Court.
Today the Court faces unprecedented judicial workload and growing relevance. 124 States have ratified its founding treaty, the Rome Statute. The importance of a justice component in the settling of conflicts and the role of the ICC in this regard is increasingly recognized.
We have reached this point against all odds.
Just two decades ago, a permanent international court that could prosecute individuals irrespective of their official position was regarded as a revolutionary idea. During the negotiations, many asked: would States ever agree to establish an international body with such power?
Many did, because they recognized 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.
States were not alone in bringing that vision to fruition. As someone who took part in the process of the creation of the ICC from the beginning, I witnessed first-hand the crucial part played by non-governmental organizations in the form of persistent advocacy that helped galvanize the determination of States to establish a strong ICC. NGOs also provided invaluable support and expertise to delegations during the negotiations.
Ever since the Court’s establishment, civil society has remained active in supporting but likewise criticising the Court when necessary, holding it up to high standards. Constructive dialogue with NGOs continues to be of significant benefit to the Court. At the same time, the engagement of CICC and its members with governments and organisations helps advance the full implementation of Rome Statute, supporting the strengthening of national jurisdictions under the principle of complementarity.
These are by no means the achievements of a few NGOs alone. The Coalition for an International Criminal Court has had a key role in mobilising, coordinating and channelling support from civil society organizations all around the world.
The ICC’s mandate is relevant everywhere. Where massive 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.
But numerous challenges remain, and the CICC, with its broad membership in all regions, will continue to play an indispensable role in helping tackle them.
The Court has a global mandate but has not yet attained universal participation. Many of the world’s worst conflict zones are beyond its reach. More countries need to join the Rome Statute, so that the ICC is able to address all crimes in an equal manner.
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 and the international community as a whole to international justice is put to a real test. States established the Court, 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 cooperation of States and organizations is necessary for the ICC’s ability to collect evidence, protect witnesses, or arrest suspects. Likewise, without cooperation, the Court cannot provide adequate reparations to the victims of crimes under its jurisdiction.
The International Criminal Court is here to stay. Its commitment to justice is stronger than ever, and the Court is actively taking new initiatives to improve its efficiency and effectiveness in order to meet the challenges before it. But the ICC cannot fight impunity alone. How effective it will be depends on the cooperation of States and the determination of the global community to make accountability for the most serious international crimes a non-negotiable objective.
The inauguration of the ICC’s Permanent Premises has given us all, court officials, States and civil society, the opportunity to make a pause in our journey to celebrate what has been already achieved through our collective efforts to enhance accountability. It also gives the opportunity to reflect anew how we can best ensure together that the International Criminal Court becomes a true icon of justice for future generations.
The role of civil society will be crucial in solidifying achievements of the past, paving the way for new successes and resisting attempts to weaken international criminal justice. No doubt that the support of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court will be needed in the years ahead. The journey must continue.