A decade ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened its doors for the first time. Four years after 120 countries voted to create a permanent institution to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression, the court that activists had long dreamed of was becoming a reality.
Or so it seemed. In a sleepy suburb of The Hague on that July day, two court officials took questions from journalists and, when they were finished, walked into the modern office building that would serve as the court's headquarters. They kept right on walking, though -- through the back door and straight out of the building. The ICC was just an empty shell. No offices were ready, and the court had no budget. Staffers bought the court's first telephones on their personal credit cards.
Even worse, the infant court faced a hostile superpower. In 2002, the United States was not only determined to keep its distance from the court -- it was using its weight to restrict the ICC's reach. A few weeks after the court opened, President George W. Bush signed legislation directing the United States to cut off military aid to any country unwilling to sign a pledge refusing to send U.S. citizens to The Hague. The measure went even further, authorizing the president to use "all means necessary" to free Americans held by the court. The ICC's first employees felt the institution's fragility acutely. One of the first judges, Sang-hyun Song, told me recently that he and other judges "were not at all sure about whether this new baby would be able to survive all the hostility shown by the big powers."
Ten years later, that same building in The Hague hosts a staff approaching 1,000 lawyers, investigators, and administrators from around the world. The court's annual budget exceeds $100 million. Once personae non gratae in Washington, court officials now confer regularly with the State Department and White House staff, and the United States has pledged to help investigations when possible. In all, the ICC has launched investigations in seven countries and brought charges against 28 individuals, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, and notorious Lord's Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony. Perhaps most importantly, the U.N. Security Council has twice referred situations to the court (Sudan and Libya), giving the ICC jurisdiction where it had none before and bringing the court into the center of international efforts to manage conflict.
For all the distance the court has covered, however, its 10-year anniversary is still far from joyous. Growing pains and the dilemmas of prosecuting complex crimes, often in the midst of war, have left even some true believers frustrated. It took the court more than six years to process, try, and convict the first suspect captured -- Congolese militia commander Thomas Lubanga -- and that case still hasn't gone through the appeals stage. (The prosecutor clashed repeatedly with judges and defense counsel over the confidentiality of evidence, producing several long delays.) Meanwhile, the court's member states fret about the expense of the ICC's proceedings.
The ICC's difficulties run even deeper. The permanent court may be a milestone in the development of international law, but it is often a bit player when it comes to international politics. It relies almost entirely on states to fund its operations, aid its investigations, and, most fundamentally, enforce its arrest warrants. The ICC's first decade has demonstrated repeatedly that however much states may like the abstract notion of international justice, they're not often willing to elevate it to the top of their policy agendas -- or defend it in the face of competing interests.
The court's political problems have been most dramatic in Africa. Thirty-three African states have joined the court, the most from any region, but many African leaders reacted harshly to the court's indictment of Sudan's Bashir in 2009. The next year, the African Union decided its members had no obligation to comply with the court's arrest warrants and chastised then-ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for making "egregiously unacceptable, rude and condescending statements." In 2011, the court's pursuit of several senior Kenyan officials led to renewed hostility between The Hague and African officialdom. Kenyan diplomats at one point tried to engineer a mass African defection from the court. Their bid was unsuccessful, but the animosity continues.