(The Hague) - International Criminal Court member countries should use their annual meeting to strengthen international support for the court's mission and independence, Human Rights Watch said today. The ICC Assembly of States Parties, which oversees court administration, will meet in The Hague for nine days beginning November 18, 2009.

The ICC made important progress this year, including the start of its first trial, Human Rights Watch said. But the court faces significant challenges, including outstanding arrest warrants in three of the four countries in which it has investigations and efforts to undermine the court by allies of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who is being sought for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

"The ICC has made mistakes that need to be tackled," said Elizabeth Evenson, counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "But the ICC's 110 member countries should step up their efforts to uphold its critical role as a court of last resort and to respond vigorously to the court's unprincipled opponents."

Many ICC members, including African members, are working to reaffirm their commitment to international justice. For example, at least two African ICC members - South Africa and Botswana - rejected an African Union decision in July to withhold cooperation to arrest President al-Bashir. Human Rights Watch called on ICC members to use the annual meeting to speak out forcefully on the ICC's crucial function and to encourage the court to strengthen its own public information activities.

ICC members will also gather next May in Kampala, Uganda for a review conference mandated by the Rome Statute, which created the court and entered into force in 2002. At the meeting, member countries will take stock of the state of international criminal justice and consider amendments to the Rome Statute. Extending the reach of international justice and assessing its impact on communities affected by crimes within the ICC's jurisdiction are among the topics states should address at that conference, Human Rights Watch said.

"Taking stock of the achievements and shortcomings of international justice at the review conference will help to identify and meet challenges in the years ahead," Evenson said. "ICC member countries should ensure that careful preparation for the review conference is made now to deliver results in Kampala."

Increased international cooperation is essential to the success of the court, Human Rights Watch said. ICC member countries should bolster these efforts by creating a permanent working group to address such issues as concluding witness relocation and sentence enforcement agreements.

In reviewing the court's annual budget at the meeting, member countries should ensure that the court has the resources it needs in The Hague and through its presence in countries where it is conducting investigations, as well as in key capitals including New York and Addis Ababa. The ICC prosecutor recently announced he would seek authorization to open a fifth ICC investigation, in Kenya.

"Increasing ICC activities and fulfilling higher expectations of justice mean that governments will need to continue to invest in the court," said Evenson.

In a memorandum sent 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 need to set a policy for court-paid family visits for indigent ICC detainees, make certain that two judges to be elected during the meeting are the most highly qualified candidates, and prepare to elect the next ICC prosecutor. Human Rights Watch also reiterated the need for court officials to continue to make progress in building an effective, fair, and credible institution.

Background

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, 13 arrest warrants and one summons to appear have been issued. The ICC prosecutor also is looking at a number of other situations in countries around the world. These include Kenya, Colombia, Georgia, Cote d'Ivoire, Afghanistan, and Guinea. The Palestinian National Authority has also petitioned the ICC prosecutor to accept jurisdiction over crimes committed in Gaza.

To date, four individuals are in ICC custody in The Hague. A fifth individual, Bahr Idriss Abu Garda - who is charged with war crimes in connection with an attack on African Union peacekeepers in Darfur - has appeared voluntarily during pre-trial proceedings. The court began its first trial, of the Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, on January 26, and completed pre-trial proceedings in two additional cases. The court's second trial, against the Congolese rebel leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, is expected to start on November 24.

In addition to President al-Bashir and two other individuals in the Darfur situation, arrest warrants remain outstanding for leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda and for Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel commander now integrated into the Congolese national army.

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.

The ICC's jurisdiction may be triggered in one of three ways. States parties or the UN Security Council can refer a situation (meaning a specific set of events) to the ICC prosecutor, or the ICC prosecutor can seek on his own motion the authorization of a pre-trial chamber of ICC judges to open an investigation.

The Rome Statute mandates that seven years after the treaty enters into force, the UN secretary-general is to convene a review conference to consider any amendments to the treaty. At its seventh Assembly of States Parties, in 2008, ICC members agreed to hold the conference in Kampala. It is scheduled to begin on May 31, 2010.