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International Criminal Court Treaty Turns 20

Renewed Support Needed to Ensure Justice for Atrocity Crimes

This week was the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, the treaty that led to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The court, with its mandate to prosecute atrocity crimes, has a more crucial role than ever. But it also faces important challenges, some that need to be addressed by the court itself, and others – like resources, arrests, and political support – that require action by its member countries.

The anniversary was a moment for countries to seize the opportunity to bolster support for the court – not through “pat on the back” praise, but rather a commitment to facing up to these challenges. Many states did just that.

On the July 17 anniversary, there were events in The Hague and at United Nations headquarters in New York City. Forty-eight government representatives, including 13 ministers, spoke. The Nigerian president delivered a keynote speech in The Hague, providing a counterpoint to a misleading narrative about a lack of support for the ICC in Africa. But the speech generated criticism in Nigeria on social media because of perceived impunity for crimes allegedly committed by Nigerian government forces. The ICC prosecutor is considering whether an investigation in Nigeria, including for these crimes, is warranted.

Beyond these events, governments issued statements, an opinion piece, and a video. European Union foreign ministers produced Council Conclusions. The German federal parliament adopted a cross-party resolution. An informal session was held two weeks earlier at the UN Security Council to discuss improving that body’s support to the ICC. And in June, 11 South American governments issued a declaration.

The countries recognized the court’s role in catalyzing other justice efforts, including before national courts, and spoke of the ICC’s central purpose – bringing justice to victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. But they also flagged obstacles, such as decreased support for international institutions due to a global nationalist surge, gridlock at the Security Council, and the need for more countries to ratify the court’s treaty to make its reach truly global.

Statements by civil society organizations highlighted the steps court officials should take, reflecting disappointment in countries where the court has only achieved limited results to date.

Questions remain about how the ICC can overcome these challenges. Time will tell whether these anniversary efforts, which will continue throughout the year, will translate into needed changes. But the willingness of so many states to take this opportunity to reaffirm the court’s critical mandate is a welcome sign.  


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