The Permanent Premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. 

© 2016 UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
(New York) – International Criminal Court (ICC) member countries should increase their support for this essential court of last resort as its 20th anniversary nears, Human Rights Watch said today.

The court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, was adopted on July 17, 1998. A year of activities leading up to the 20th anniversary in 2018 presents an opportunity to build much-needed political support for the ICC's important judicial work.

“The International Criminal Court needs the active support of its member countries to bring people accused of the world’s most horrific crimes to justice and to bring dignity to their victims,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The countries that helped create this court with such high hopes need to strengthen their support for its critically important work.”

In 1998, more than 150 governments negotiated the court’s treaty over five weeks at a diplomatic conference in Rome, establishing the only permanent global court with a mandate to try the gravest crimes under international law. Since the court began functioning in 2003, the ICC has conducted investigations in nine countries for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

For nearly 20 years, ICC member countries have worked to bring the court from aspiration to reality, but challenges remain, Human Rights Watch said. As the court works to strengthen its own practices, constant and visible support from ICC members for the court’s work is essential to its success. Backing from member countries is needed to carry out the court’s investigations, arrest warrants, and witness protection programs. Private and public diplomacy is necessary to protect the court’s independence and legitimacy from outside political pressure.

The importance of strong backing from member countries was clear as the Rome Statute faced its first state party withdrawals in 2016. Earlier in the court’s history, members successfully resisted efforts by the US administration, under President George W. Bush, to undermine its work between 2002 and 2005.

“So long as the ICC is doing its job, it will draw opposition from those who fear accountability,” Dicker said. “The commitment of member countries to the ICC, a global institution rooted in the rule of law, can provide an essential defense to the erosion of international human rights values.”

The ICC is already planning events to mark the 20th anniversary, but the crucial initiative rests with member countries. Commemorative events planned for New York, The Hague, and Dakar are an opportunity to build momentum and expectation for the 2018 anniversary.

Steps member countries can take to help prepare for the court’s 20th anniversary include:

  • Strengthening their efforts to assist the arrest of ICC suspects;
  • Bolstering the court’s investigations with technical and diplomatic assistance;
  • Directing their own development assistance to better facilitate prosecutions of ICC crimes before national courts; and
  • Ensuring that the ICC is properly funded and resourced to address the growing demands on the court.

“This 20th anniversary is far more important than a rosy recollection of the negotiating triumph 20 years ago in Rome,” Dicker said. “The ICC’s 20th anniversary is an important opportunity to strengthen and support the role of the ICC today, when the need for justice has never been greater.”