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Dispatches: Marking A Day for International Justice

Gains made in prosecutions against genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity

The past year has seen important gains for justice for victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – victories we should celebrate on the Day of International Criminal Justice, July 17.

Survivors of Habré's atrocities walk to the court to hear the verdict, May 30, 2016 © 2016 Andrew Stroehlein / Human Rights Watch

Highlights include the start of the trial against Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda, who evaded an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for seven years, and the conviction of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba in the first ICC case in which sexual violence as a weapon of war was the most prominent charge.

There were also the first prosecutions of Syrian war crimes suspects – albeit lower-level figures – in European domestic courts, the conviction of Radovan Karadzic for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the conviction and sentencing to life in prison of Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, by a special court set up in Senegal – the first of its kind in Africa.

Yet many obstacles to international justice remain, and some are worsening.

In many places around the world, victims have no access justice. The last of the ICC’s cases related to Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence collapsed this year, leaving no easy path ahead for victims. Some ICC member countries refuse to cooperate with the court and help arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. And there is pressure to constrain the court’s budget – despite rising demands.

Backlash from a vocal minority of African governments that accuse the ICC of bias against Africans escalated over the past year. In January, the African Union even tasked a committee with considering the issue of withdrawal from the ICC by its member countries.

True, the ICC has limitations, and some powerful countries have not joined. But for a reality check on why the ICC remains crucial for Africa and the world, watch this short video featuring African activists. Chino Obiagwu, of Nigeria’s Legal Defence and Assistance Project, recounts horrific crimes committed on the continent with impunity. Angela Mudukuti, from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, debunks the myth that the ICC is targeting Africa, explaining that Africa is simply making use of a court it helped create. And Stella Ndirangu, of the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya, reminds us that the ICC only became an AU target when it began to hold African leaders accountable.

This week the AU is holding a summit in Rwanda. It’s unclear if a call for ICC withdrawal is on the agenda. Let’s hope African leaders have heard the voices of African activists – joining with victims around the world – and will mark this International Criminal Justice Day by offering the ICC more support, not less.

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