July 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent international court with a mandate to investigate, charge, and try people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes worldwide. At the ripe old age of 10, the court has become a high-profile institution on the world stage -- central to nearly every call for international justice for the most serious crimes. Nearly two-thirds of the United Nations' membership, 121 states, have ratified the ICC's statute, which legally obligates them to cooperate with the court. And the ICC is staying busy: The current docket includes the cases of, among others, three heads of state, a former vice president from a fourth country, and two presidential candidates from a fifth. In August, judges will consider sending former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, now in court custody, to trial. Meanwhile, there are growing, but initial diplomatic efforts are under way to have those Syrian officials responsible for alleged crimes appear before the ICC.
At the same time, however, the court has been unable to take custody of several leading suspects such as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the Lord's Resistance Army's Joseph Kony, who continue to reap murder and sow mayhem. In addition, the Office of the Prosecutor has failed to pursue any investigations outside Africa. In just the last few weeks, in the starkest crisis in the court's institutional life, an ICC defense lawyer and three staffers visiting Muammar al-Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, have been detained by a militia in Libya that is holding him.
The ICC is also managing a large investigative docket and caseload. It is conducting investigations in seven countries -- in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur in Sudan, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Libya, and Uganda. The Office of the Prosecutor is also considering whether to open investigations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, Honduras, Nigeria, and South Korea. Meanwhile, the court's investigations have spawned renewed interest in bolstering national prosecution of serious crimes in Congo, Guinea, and Uganda. These initiatives could be a lasting spillover effect of the ICC as "a court of last resort."
Despite serious performance problems and the ebb and flow of support from governments, the court has made significant initial headway, giving rise to enormous expectations wherever the world's worst crimes occur -- as poignantly demonstrated by the Syrian protesters' signs last month that read "Assad to The Hague." Today, the International Criminal Court is the address for international criminal accountability. Yet as the court, with its daunting mandate, extends its reach, the flaws in its workings have become more visible.
The ICC differs in several essential aspects from the earlier ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These were created by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Coming as the result of a multilateral negotiation involving 150 countries over several years, the ICC was created in an extraordinary spate of judicial institution-building in the 1990s. As a result, at the outset, the court enjoyed a broad legitimacy and resonance with governments around the world. Countries that had recently made a difficult but successful passage from dictatorship to democracy, like South Africa and Argentina, saw their experiences and newfound commitment to accountability as empowering them to bring real value-added to the court's creation.
Despite its all-Africa concentration, the court, unlike the ad hoc tribunals, has a reach that goes far beyond one continent or subregion. The ICC is authorized to exercise its mandate over the "most serious crimes of concern to the international community" if either the state on whose territory the crimes occurred or the state of nationality of the accused has ratified the treaty and has failed to do its own investigations. This broad authority offered the promise of a more level international playing field for justice, and this prospect fueled widespread support.