In the war-torn Ituri region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, community members watch closely as the International Criminal Court's first trial, that of a former Congolese militia leader, opens in January 2009.

(Kampala) - Governments should use the first review conference of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to advance justice for the worst international crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. The 10-day conference, which begins May 31, 2010, is being held in Kampala, Uganda.

Representatives of the court's 111 member states, non-member states, the United Nations, and civil society groups will gather at the conference to reaffirm the importance of bringing to justice those accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the crimes covered by the ICC. The treaty that created the court, the Rome Statute, mandated holding a review conference seven years after its entry into force to discuss possible amendments. The first part of the conference will address crucial challenges confronting the ICC in its day-to-day work as part of "stocktaking" sessions.

"This major gathering of officials and activists from around the world in Kampala is bad news for those responsible for the worst international crimes," said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "We expect governments to seize the moment to step up their commitment to global justice."

After four days of debate and discussion at the conference on strengthening the ICC and the emerging system of international justice, governments will review proposals to amend the ICC treaty. One of  the amendments for discussion is whether to adopt a definition of the crime of aggression - using force that is manifestly contrary to the UN charter - and if so, the manner in which the court would exercise jurisdiction over such cases.

Human Rights Watch called on governments to make commitments at the conference to take specific steps to bolster cooperation with the ICC. The court relies on governments to carry out arrests and assist its investigations and prosecutions. Seven of the ICC's suspects remain at large.

"Unless governments actually make arrests, the ICC cannot deliver justice to victims of mass atrocities," Dicker said. "We will be listening in Kampala for pledges of increased support to place perpetrators and would-be perpetrators on notice that they will be held to account."

Regional intergovernmental organizations including the European Union and the Union of South American Nations have, in advance of the conference, issued statements of support for the ICC and international justice. Over 100 African civil society organizations have signed a statement calling on their governments to reaffirm their commitment to the ICC at the Kampala conference.

Last year's backlash over the court's arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan -whose re-inauguration takes place today in Khartoum - has underscored the importance of strong public backing for the court's mandate. Controversy over the court's warrant for Omar al-Bashir indicates that it is doing its job to make sure that even the most senior officials answer for alleged crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

The conference's location in Kampala also offers a unique opportunity to forge stronger links between the ICC and those affected by egregious international crimes in Africa, Human Rights Watch said. States should consider as well how to extend the reach of international justice through credible trials of ICC crimes at the national level.

"Breaking the vicious cycle of international crimes and impunity requires credible national trials in addition to ICC trials in The Hague," Dicker said. "Discussions in Kampala should include attention to bolstering accountability efforts at home."

With regard to the discussions of the crime of aggression, Human Rights Watch said that it takes no position on the definition. But Human Rights Watch expressed concern that making the crime of aggression operational could link the ICC to highly politicized disputes between states that could diminish the court's role - and perceptions of that role - as an impartial judicial arbiter of international criminal law.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about proposals to allow outside entities such as the UN Security Council, its General Assembly, or the International Court of Justice to decide whether the ICC can investigate alleged crimes of aggression. Human Rights Watch has long opposed control of any crime within the court's jurisdiction by external bodies because it would undermine the ICC's judicial independence.

The ICC 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 treaty, known as the Rome Statute, entered into force in 2002, just four years after 120 states adopted the treaty during the Rome Conference.

An Assembly of States Parties (ASP) was created by the Rome Statute to provide management oversight of 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 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 ASP session, in 2008, ICC members agreed to hold this conference in Kampala.

The crime of aggression was included in the Rome Statute, but without a definition or the conditions under which the court could exercise jurisdiction over the crime. A special working group of the ASP was formed in 2003 to prepare proposals for amendments that, if adopted, would make the crime operational.

In addition to considering proposed amendments such as on the crime of aggression, the agenda of the review conference includes a general debate in which high-level representatives of ICC member states are expected to participate and two days of debate and discussion as part of a "stocktaking" exercise. At their eighth ASP session, ICC members decided on four topics for stocktaking: cooperation; complementarity, or strengthening national courts to try Rome Statute crimes; the impact of the Rome Statute system on victims and affected communities; and the relationship between peace and justice.

The court'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 by a pre-trial chamber of ICC judges to open an investigation.

The ICC prosecutor has opened investigations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Uganda, the Darfur region of Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Kenya. Based on those investigations, 13 arrest warrants and one summons to appear have been issued. The prosecutor is also looking at a number of other situations in countries around the world. These include 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.

Four individuals are in ICC custody in The Hague. A fifth, Bahr Idriss Abu Garda - who was charged with war crimes in connection with an attack on African Union peacekeepers in Darfur - appeared voluntarily during pre-trial proceedings. The ICC's pre-trial chamber subsequently declined to confirm charges brought against Abu Garda.

The court began its first trial, of the Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, on January 26, 2009. Its second trial, against the Congolese rebel leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, began on November 24, 2009.

In addition to al-Bashir and two other individuals sought in relation to 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.