, THE HAGUE, Mar 13 – A decade after it was set up to try the world’s worst war crimes, the International Criminal Court evokes strong responses with some hailing it and others branding it a tool of the winning forces.
For Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s chief prosecutor, it is a “respected global institution”, but critics say the Hague-based ICC dispenses punishment only to losers in conflicts.
“When I started, people said we could not do it, we would never have a case in court,” Moreno-Ocampo told AFP in an interview on the eve of the ICC’s first judgement since being called into life in July 2002.
“We now investigate in seven countries, we have people in prison, we are a court, we are normal,” Moreno-Ocampo said ahead of the judges’ verdict in the case of Democratic Republic of Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga.
Lubanga, 51, is one of 20 suspects against whom arrest warrants have been issued to appear in The Hague. He will learn his fate on Wednesday, facing charges of recruiting child soldiers under 15 years to fight in his militia.
Considered to be a minor catch for the ICC and imprisoned in 2006, Lubanga has also been joined in a Hague prison by two other Congolese rebel leaders, as well as Democratic Republic of Congo former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Last year, the suspects at the tribunal’s detention unit received a new addition: ex Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo.
Fifteen procedures are now pending before the ICC, the world’s first permanent international criminal tribunal to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It held 321 hearings last year in three trials or pre-trial preparations.
More than 4,000 victims, many of them of ethnic violence, have taken part in proceedings before the court, which employs some 700 people and has a budget of 108 million euros ($141 million) for this year.
“The court has become a globally respected institution,” said Argentinian prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo, due to end his mandate in June.
His deputy, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, is set to take over the reins.
So far 120 countries have signed up to the Rome Statute and pledged to work with the court.
“We cannot attend a single meeting in New York where at one point or another ICC is not being mentioned,” a diplomatic source at the UN told AFP.
“The added value of the court is its legitimacy and its impartiality,” the source said.
But there was a flip side, the source said.
“There lies the whole challenge for the future: some countries would like to chose their suspects and decide themselves which arrest warrants should be executed.
“Already, nobody lifts a finger to arrest (Sudanese President) Omar al-Bashir,” the source added.
Wanted by the ICC for genocide, Bashir continues to cock a snook at the ICC as he travels the world in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, the source said.
The ICC does not have its own police force and is dependent on the goodwill of member states to nab suspects.
It has garnered strong support from global NGOs, but also some criticism.
“We regret that all investigations are conducted in Africa,” said Karine Bonneau of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The African investigations were justified, added Human Rights Watch’s Geraldine Mattioli, but it did hurt the court’s legitimacy that some viewed it as a “tool of Western powers.”
“The prosecution’s strategy sometimes seems inadequate,” Mattioli added.
For instance, only rebel leaders are being prosecuted for abuses in the DRC, “not the political and military leaders in Uganda, Rwanda and Kinshasa who have used these armed groups,” she said.
“The court must do better in demonstrating that those in power can be targeted,” said Goran Sluiter, an international criminal law professor at Amsterdam University.
“In many situations those who have lost the conflict are being charged.”
He said the ICC was today however being recognised as a “permanent institution and a very, very powerful tool.”
“Somebody like (Syrian leader) Bashar al-Assad in Syria should be very afraid. It may be safe today and tomorrow, but who knows? Maybe in two or four years’ time if there is a regime change and Syria submits the case, he could be at the ICC.”