Celebrations were muted in the windswept streets of the Hague last week at the war crimes conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The first guilty verdict for a head-of-state in the history of UN war crimes courts is an important milestone to be sure, but it masks a deeper malaise for war crimes justice, which is finding it harder to win cases as political support drains away.
The center for these anxieties is not the Sierra Leone Special Court, which is expected to give Taylor a long jail sentence next month, but the gleaming skyscraper across town that houses the International Criminal Court.
The ICC was designed as the successor to half a dozen temporary UN courts that are now, like the special court that convicted Taylor, winding up their affairs. Lost amid the triumphant headlines about the Taylor story are some grim figures. The ICC, which has been open for ten years now, has cost more than $1 billion, employs 750 staff, and has a grand total of one conviction. That solitary conviction, of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanda, who was jailed earlier this year for use of child soldiers, seems like a poor return on so much investment.
In the bars and restaurants of The Hague, the lawyers and activists who cluster around the half-dozen courts that make their home here argue about the reasons for this lack of success.
Some blame mistakes by ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, seen by some as lacking bite by virtue of a background spent in academia rather than battling in the world's courtrooms. Others say it simply takes time for a court which such an ambitious mandate to get its act together. What all agree on is that the number one problem for the ICC and for war crimes justice is political support. Or rather, the lack of it.
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The ICC was originally designed by the UN to replace ad hoc courts that have brought justice to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. But objections from the United States, China, and Russia, among others, saw it divorced from the UN apparatus. It exists, instead, as a curious free-standing organization, governed by its 121 member states.
Its long-term aim is to win integration into the UN, but for the moment it is stuck halfway down the road. It can police its own members, but most states who commit war crimes do not join the ICC. Instead, it encourages the UN's Security Council to refer cases to it.
This has happened twice, with the Security Council ordering it to investigate Darfur in 2005, and last year, Libya. Both cases are stuck in the mire. In 2008, Ocampo indicted Sudan's president Omar Al Bashir for genocide. Bashir, not surprisingly, chose not to turn himself in and, to date, the Security Council has put little pressure on Sudan to change the policy.