South Korean judge Sang-Hyun Song said in the early years after the court’s creation in 2002 it was “not at all sure that this big new creature called the ICC would be able to survive the hostility from the big powers.”
“Ten years later, however, I’m happy to tell you we’ve grown to be a fully functioning international institution,” Song said in a speech at Columbia University in New York.
Song said relations with the United States, which has not joined the treaty creating the court in The Hague, have been difficult, particularly under the administration of George W. Bush.
The chances of Washington agreeing to join the court any time soon are slim, he said, given that many US politicians fear the ICC would be used to prosecute alleged American rights abuses abroad.
“We have to face domestic political reality in this country,” Song admitted, but added that, nevertheless “the ICC and the Obama administration in particular have been enjoying rather close cooperation.”
“It ranges from simple intelligence sharing down to the US government’s dispatch of 100 military advisors to Uganda, with the hope of helping Uganda arresting Joseph Kony,” he said, referring to a notorious warlord.
Other prominent powers that have been accused of crimes against humanity and remain outside of the court include China, Israel and Russia.
Even in Africa, where nearly all the court’s activities are concentrated, results come slowly.
Song acknowledged the difficulty the court is having prosecuting cases in Kenya against four suspects accused of fuelling bloodshed after an election in 2007.
Two of them are politicians running together on the presidential ticket in next month’s election.
Song said the trials are meant to start in April, but “since there are so many variables here, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“At the moment, I must admit that the logistics aspect of the Kenya case, for example, is not necessarily easy,” Song said.
“These four suspects are under summons to appear. They are not arrested people. They kept on saying they will comply with the ICC procedures and so on and so forth.
“How they will come all the way to The Hague to attend the trial and for how long?”
An attempt to prosecute Muammar Gaddafi’s former spy chief Abdullah Senussi and the former Libyan leader’s son on charges of crimes against humanity has also run into trouble, with Tripoli so far refusing to hand them over.
Song said he is motivated by his tragic childhood during the Korean war in the early 1950s and that he remains optimistic about the court’s future.
“By design, the ICC is obligated to walk a very fine line,” he said, and “we are far from eradicating depravity and mass violence.”
But “with every year that goes by the normative consensus grows stronger that justice must be done in the case of mass atrocities.”
In any case, Song said, drawing a laugh from the prestigious university audience: “Fortunately, I have been blessed with unlimited Asian patience.”