Is International Criminal Court verdict a wake-up call for war criminals?

The International Criminal Court has rendered its first verdict - finding Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of using child soldiers - almost 10 years after the court was created. That has fuelled talk about what took so long, and whether the court is worth the expense.

ICC's first verdict a landmark decision

The treaty that created the International Criminal Court came into force almost ten years ago, on July 1, 2002. The treaty, the Rome Statute, provided for the creation, for the first time, of a permanent international criminal court to prosecute the most serious cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On March 14, the ICC brought down its first verdict, which fuelled discussions about what took so long, and even whether the court is worth the expense.

The verdict was in the case of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. Six years after Lubanga first appeared at The Hague, the judges pronounced him guilty of war crimes for the enlistment, conscription and use of child soldiers in 2002-2003.

It was the ICC's first trial and it broke new ground, but it did show that international criminal justice is slow.

Aime Dieudonne, a young combatant with the rebel Union for Congolese Patriots (UPC) stands guard during a public rally in Bunia, Congo on Feb. 6, 2003. The ICC on March 14, 2012 convicted Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga of using child soldiers, in it's landmark first judgment, 10 years after it was established. Prosecutors said the UPC recruited children 'sometimes by force, other times voluntarily' into its ranks. (Rodrique Ngowi/Associated Press)

Nevertheless, Canadian author Erna Paris says that as a brand new institution, "the court has handled these early years well." Paris's latest book is The Sun Climbs Slow: The International Criminal Court and the Struggle for Justice.

"Everything had to be created from the ground up," and the Rome Statute had never been applied before, Paris told CBC News.

There were hitches, she concedes, but the experience of the last ten years has firmly established a trend towards international justice, which Paris views as "a major turnaround in international affairs."

ICC just the fallback for domestic prosecutions

Caroline Davidson, one of the Canadians who has been at ground zero for international criminal justice, said it is still too soon to judge the ICC.

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots, sits in front of a bodyguard during a rally by the rebel group on June 3, 2003. (Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press)

Between 2003 and 2008, Davidson did stints prosecuting alleged war criminals at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During that time, she also spent a term as an international human rights fellow at the University of Toronto law school. Since leaving the ICTY, she has been teaching law at Willamette University in Oregon.

Davidson explained that the Rome Statute is premised on a decentralized model, with the court in The Hague, The Netherlands as just one part. The 120 countries, including Canada,  that are now parties to the Rome Statute, "have agreed to take measures at the national level to prosecute international crimes."

So the ICC is just the fallback, she pointed out, for when countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute cases. Under the Rome Statute, national governments have primary responsibility to bring the perpetrators to account.

International criminal justice takes time

ICC cases take time because they begin not as cases but as investigations of situations, with seven currently underway.

Caroline Davidson prosecuted alleged war criminals at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She told CBC News the ICC needs to be 'thoughtful about how to 'make the charges more streamlined.' Davidson teaches a law school class at Oregon's Willamette University, Nov. 2, 2011. (Frank Miller/Willamette University)

The ICC does not investigate crimes committed before the statute entered into force in 2002, so it was to be expected that it would be slow getting started.

As well, countries that have not signed the statute do not automatically come under the state's jurisdiction. That list includes China, Israel, Russia, Syria and the U.S.

However, the UN Security Council can refer countries to the ICC, which happened with Libya last year and earlier with Darfur.

Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, is appearing at the court in The Hague at the request of the Ivory Coast's current government, even though the country is not a party to the Rome Statute.

U.S. not a signatory

The ICC by the numbers

  • 120 states parties
  • 700 staff
  • 7 investigations (Uganda, D.R. of Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast)
  • 8 Preliminary examinations (Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Honduras, Nigeria, South Korea, Guinea, "Palestine")
  • 14 cases brought before the ICC
  • 6 arrests
  • 6 persons in custody
  • 1 conviction
  • 10 suspects at large

Source: ICC, The Court Today

The absence of the U.S. has hampered the ICC, particularly financially, according to Paris. The court is undergoing budget cuts this year that Human Rights Watch claims will make it "challenging for the ICC to implement its mandate."

For Paris, "American logistics, all the things that the US is really so good at, and has such control of, would definitely have helped the court."  But she points out that the U.S. is still involved, citing as an example their sending 100 military advisers to help capture and bring before the ICC, Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army of Uganda.

In the CBC News interview, Paris said the Obama administration has been very friendly to the ICC but, given the current political alignment in the U.S., she rules out the addition of  a U.S. signature on the Rome Statute.

For Davidson, one of the lessons of her experience at the ICTY was the need to make cases more streamlined. In the past, international trials have also been used as a vehicle for documenting the history of what happened, leading to "a tendency to pile on heaps and heaps of charges."

Author Erna Paris argues that for a brand new institution, the ICC has handled its first 10 years well. (Courtesy Erma Paris)

That works against a speedy resolution of the cases but "It's hard to create a historical record or give victims any measure of satisfaction when you only charge a defendant with a small fraction of what he or she may have done," she said in the interview.

Slobodan Milosevic faced "heaps of charges" at the ICTY.  "The case was in trial for four years and then he died before judgment," Davidson noted.

Why the Lubanga case took so long

Prosecutors at the ICC debated what to do with Lubanga, and ultimately only pursued the child soldiers charges, but that case also dragged on.

To begin with, the cases are not as easy to investigate as they are in domestic jurisdictions. "You're relying on local cooperation, which may or may not be present," Davidson said, drawing on her own experience in the former Yugoslavia.  And the ICC investigates cases with ongoing conflict, which makes obtaining information both dangerous and difficult.

Listen to Erna Paris on The Current

On March 15, host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Paris and international law expert William Schabas about the ICC's first conviction.

Among the other issues that delayed the Lubanga trial were issues about the prosecution disclosing confidential information to the defence, and the use of third parties to conduct investigations.

As its first trial the ICC had to work through those issues in order to ensure the rights of a defendant to a fair trial. Lessons were learned and "other trials under way at the ICC are already running more smoothly," according to Human Rights Watch.

The Lubanga trial also took time because as the first such court to include victim participation in its statute, the ICC had to work out how to make it so.

For Paris, the bottom line of Lubanga's conviction and the ongoing work of the ICC is that, for war criminals, it "has announced that there is accountability for these acts, and for these people, and that can't help but make a difference."

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