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A Day to Reflect on International Justice

Successes, Challenges in the Global Fight Against Impunity

Protesters hold up pictures of victims of extrajudicial killings during Human Rights Day protests in Manila, Philippines, December 10, 2017.   © 2017 Ezra Acayan/Sipa USA via AP Images

Tomorrow is International Criminal Justice Day, marking the anniversary of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) founding treaty, the Rome Statute. Looking at the past year, justice comes in different forms, and, despite serious challenges, progress can be achieved.

Universal jurisdiction, which allows national authorities to prosecute suspects of grave abuses regardless of nationality or where the crimes were committed, is an increasingly important tool. In the past year, a German court issued a landmark verdict against a former Syrian official and a Swiss court convicted a former Liberian rebel leader for war crimes.

Supported by many governments and the European Union, nongovernmental organizations created an International Accountability Platform for Belarus to receive evidence of serious violations.

Other notable moments included the conviction by a Congolese military court of a militia leader for war crimes in eastern Congo, and recent charges brought in Colombia.

Pressure is building to hold Chinese authorities accountable for alleged crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, as more governments expressed concern and rights groups called for a United Nations commission of inquiry.

At the ICC, the first trial began for grave crimes committed in the Central African Republic’s most recent conflict. The court delivered a verdict against a notorious rebel commander in Uganda, and confirmed on appeal the conviction of Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda. A Darfur crimes suspect surrendered to the ICC, and the former prosecutor took a historic trip to Sudan, urging that remaining suspects be turned over.

The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor also opened a Palestine investigation, and requested permission from the court’s judges to investigate “drug war” killings in the Philippines. However, citing insufficient resources, it has yet to request authorization to investigate in Ukraine and Nigeria.  

The gap between the court’s workload and resources is increasingly challenging. Despite the repeal of US sanctions, the ICC still faces politicized opposition. The court upheld on appeal the acquittal of a former Ivorian president, a development that had raised concerns about the court's performance. A detailed report by a group of independent experts offers a framework to strengthen the ICC’s delivery of justice. This opportunity for change is particularly important as the new prosecutor begins his mandate.

There have also been setbacks, like the ICC prosecutor’s decision to close an examination of abuses by United Kingdom forces in Iraq, despite the absence of national prosecutions.

Along with marking progress, today should be an opportunity to call for what it really takes to make justice possible, at the ICC and everywhere.

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