When hope and history rhyme: Accountability will be hard fought and hard won, but it must be done


Brigitte Suhr, HRW Student Task Force Advisory Committee member, was previously HRW International Justice Counsel and the Coalition’s Director of Regional Programs | © Brigitte Suhr

With 17 July’s International Justice Day approaching and justice for past, current, and future victims of grave international crimes central to the Rome Statute vision, Brigitte Suhr draws parallels between shoring up the relatively new ICC justice architecture and educating children – both require a long view, and abandonning either committment would be devastating. A contribution to our 20th anniversary blog series When hope and history rhyme.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Henry Oster, speak about his experience in a concentration camp and as a young refugee in the United States after the war ended. The talk was given as part of a Human Rights Watch Student Task Force leadership workshop in Los Angeles, which aims to teach middle and high school students about the importance of understanding and advocating for human rights. After the talk, one of the students asked that in light of the Holocaust and the subsequent genocides, what did Dr. Oster see as the way forward toward ending genocide altogether. Dr. Oster said, among other things, that until perpetrators and would-be perpetrators consistently are told no, you will not get away with it, that there are laws, policies, authorities and courts that will hold them accountable, genocide will continue.

While he did not mention the ICC by name, the sentiment brought home to me once again one of the main reasons we still seek justice and accountability: to uphold the rule of law, to make clear that it’s not okay to commit atrocities and those who do so will be held accountable. It’s hard work done in difficult circumstances. In particular when the accused are high-level officials or former officials with access to power. As has been the case with many of the ICC’s suspects, the process can be fraught with delays, intimidation of witnesses and other forms of corruption.

Observers of the Court’s work can be forgiven for questioning whether the Court has been effective enough, quickly enough. In fact, I don’t think it has lived up to expectations. However, the answer is not to throw in the towel. The answer is to take the long view, hold to the principle that accountability is essential in our global society, for the victims, and for the society in which these crimes occur or would occur.

I draw an analogy between the rule of law and education. Educating children is difficult, expensive and rife with bad examples and policies mixed in with some innovative ones. But the answer would not be to abandon the principle that children have the right to an education and that society will be better off when children are educated. The answer is to keep up the pressure for reform, adequate funding, and training. Similarly for the rule of law and accountability, the status quo is messy. It’s expensive, it only sort of works, it has vocal detractors, but to abandon the principle altogether makes about as much sense as abandoning education.

Members of the Coalition and like-minded governments and institutions have continued to support the principle and to provide guidance, expertise and resources toward shoring up the Court as best we can, building the necessary architecture around the Court as well in the form of universal ratification and implementation of the Rome Statute. These steps alone cannot make the Court effective, but can contribute to its long-term effectiveness. While most supporters of the Court hoped that the Court’s “nascent” period would be 5-10 years rather than 15-20 years or more, it is important to recognize that the real changes in political, societal and legal status quo that are required to pave the way for accountability for grave crimes will be hard fought and hard won, but it must be done.

As frustrating as it can be to keep working toward the “never again” principle, the alternative is worse: a global society that continues to fall prey to grave violence and abusive perpetrators while the rest of the world shrugs, or continues to fight for justice with slow, halting steps. We’ve been at the business of educating children a lot longer than we’ve been trying to hold perpetrators of atrocities to account. So calls to abandon the principle are premature.

While the ICC and other international, hybrid and national courts become better able to consistently apply justice, it’s critical not to forget the real reasons behind the principle: the victims and the communities which have suffered the crimes in the past and those possibly yet to come. In this interim period of time, which may last another decade or another generation (that will only become clear in hindsight), as or more important than shoring up the nascent justice architecture, is attention to the needs of the victims and communities torn apart by genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Many NGOs work with victims to serve their needs that are broader than criminal justice including psycho-social care, medical treatment, education, poverty alleviation, and individual and community based reparations. The ICC’s Victims Trust Fund plays a role here, but so far it seems like the role is too limited and not visible enough. I agree with Angelina Jolie’s statement at the Fund’s board meeting earlier this year, that “There can be no complete justice without consideration for the victims of the war crimes themselves, and the practical assistance they need to move on with their lives and overcome the harm they have suffered. That is why the work of the Trust Fund is important and must be supported and strengthened over time.”

As the saying goes, justice must be done and seen to be done. Likewise, reparations and assistance to victims and communities must be done and seen to be done. And certainly during this period where justice is being slowly done, partially done and arguably unevenly done, increased attention and focus on victims for their own sake and to bring home the relevance and importance of justice for the broader community is critical.

Brigitte Suhr is a member of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Student Task Force Advisory Committee. She was formerly served as International Justice Counsel with HRW and Director of Regional Programs for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

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