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The Day of International Criminal Justice

An Account of Steps Forward on Difficult Terrain

Today, July 17, is the Day of International Criminal Justice. It marks the 19th anniversary of the 1998 Rome Statute: the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is the only permanent criminal court that holds perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity accountable. This day is a moment to enumerate some of the positive steps toward accountability brought about by the ICC and other justice mechanisms on a difficult international landscape.

On December 6, 2016 the ICC began its trial of Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda. The LRA leadership is notorious for its brutality against Africans, but never before has an LRA commander faced trial.

The trials of two other leaders at the ICC continued: former Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo for crimes committed during Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010-2011 post-election violence, and Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda for atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There was progress in a movement to establish a Special Criminal Court for the Central African Republic, a hybrid court that will function as part of CAR’s national court system.

Steps necessary for any future trials for grave abuses in North Korea inched closer to reality, with the United Nations Human Rights Council approving plans to strengthen evidence-gathering efforts to support the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for crimes against humanity.

In several European countries, prosecutors have initiated criminal proceedings against Syrians believed to be responsible for serious crimes there.

This year, a new UN team tasked with investigating serious international crimes committed in Syria since 2011 will begin its work.

Numerous African countries also reaffirmed their support for the ICC after South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia announced their withdrawals, with the new government in Gambia stating it would remain an ICC member. Zambia also came out strongly in support of membership with the ICC in public consultations launched by the Zambian government.

The ICC, however, faces major roadblocks. As the court works to strengthen its own practices, 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. Next year’s 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute on July 17, 2018, and the activities leading up to it are an invaluable opportunity for member countries to demonstrate their support.

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