(The Hague) - International Criminal Court (ICC) member countries should speak up to support the court's independence and mandate during their annual meeting beginning November 14, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. They should also pledge increased international cooperation on arrest warrants and should resolve to carry out arrests in the coming year. The ICC has made considerable progress in five years of operation, but has yet to hold its first trial. It is expected that the first trial will get underway in 2009. The court has been under attack in recent months, following the request in July 2008 by the ICC prosecutor for an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges including genocide in Darfur.
"With the court's independence and integrity at risk, ICC member states should speak out forcefully to promote the ICC's mission," said Elizabeth Evenson, counsel in the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch. "They should strongly defend the ICC's independence from political interference."
Sudanese authorities opened a campaign to try to persuade the United Nations Security Council to defer the ICC proceedings on Bashir. The African Union and the Organization of The Islamic Conference have supported Sudan's efforts.
Representatives of the ICC's 108 member countries will meet in The Hague for nine days at the Assembly of States Parties. This year is the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, the court's founding treaty.
The role of member states in carrying out the court's warrants is important. Warrants remain outstanding in three of the four situations under investigation. Those wanted include Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group that has carried out attacks on civilians in recent months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, and southern Sudan.
They also include Bosco Ntaganda, who is charged with crimes relating to recruiting children as fighters in the DRC's Ituri district during his tenure as chief of military operations for the ethnic Hema militia group, the Union of Congolese Patriots. Ntaganda is now the military chief of staff for the rebel commander Laurent Nkunda.
Since late August, a quarter of a million people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of intense fighting between Nkunda's forces and Congolese army soldiers and their allied militia. These recent events underscore the importance of the ICC's mandate to investigate serious crimes under international law. The ICC prosecutor is expected to announce the focus of his third investigation in DRC in his opening speech to the Assembly of States Parties on November 14.
"LRA leaders and Ntaganda continue crimes against innocent civilians, and their arrests should top the agenda at this year's assembly," Evenson said. "States should make a commitment to increased cooperation with the court and should call attention to the urgent need for joint effort toward arrests."
Proceedings in the Lubanga case are on hold following a court decision that fair trial standards could not be met because the prosecutor could not disclose potentially exculpatory documents protected under confidentiality agreements.
More progress by court officials is needed to build an effective, fair, and credible institution. Adequate financial resources are also necessary. During their meetings in The Hague, states parties will approve the court's yearly budget.
"The current difficult international economic conditions cannot become a justification to deny the court the resources that it needs," Evenson said. "If states are invested in the mission of the court to bring justice for the world's worst crimes, they must also continue to invest in the court financially."
In a memorandum issued to governments last week, Human Rights Watch called attention to a number of other issues likely to be under discussion during the meeting. These include the needs to increase support for the court's legal aid system, to set a policy for court-paid family visits for indigent ICC detainees, and to improve coordination among the court's organs.
The International Criminal Court is the world's first permanent court mandated to bring to justice perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.
The ICC prosecutor has opened investigations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Uganda, the Darfur region of Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Based on those investigations, 12 arrest warrants have been issued. To date, four individuals are in ICC custody in The Hague.
The Assembly of States Parties was created by the Rome Statute to provide management oversight of the administration of the court. It consists of representatives of each state member and is required to meet at least once a year but can meet more often as required.