The International Criminal Court (ICC) is set to gain jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. For the first time since the end of World War II, world leaders could be held accountable for waging war. States parties are expected to vote on an amendment that will close the last major gap in the court’s founding treaty, extending the ICC’s jurisdiction beyond the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Should the amendment be activated, however, the hurdles to its application, interpretations of its meaning, and the political interests involved cast doubt on whether aggression will be prosecuted any time soon.
The news that three African states—Burundi, South Africa and now The Gambia—will quit the International Criminal Court marks a setback in the long struggle against impunity for grave crimes. Although the politics are specific to each country, the common thread underlying each of the three departures is cynical self-interest.
A number of Burundi’s current leaders no doubt fear that the Court, currently conducting a preliminary inquiry, may charge them with crimes against humanity for political violence which has taken the lives of hundreds of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Indeed, Burundi’s notice of ICC withdrawal immediately followed its suspension of the activities of the UN human rights office to protest a UN report implicating the country’s security forces in massive rights violations.
The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power 22 years ago in a military coup and once infamously threatened human rights defenders with death, has been spouting further incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to elections this December. His Minister of Information’s characterization of the ICC as “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans”, seems designed to employ anti-ICC rhetoric to hide the facts of the regime’s ugly record.
As the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka’s long war enter the public domain and the government designs transitional justice mechanisms, is an end to impunity in sight?
The Sri Lankan government is currently designing transitional justice mechanisms to address human rights abuses connected to the three decade long war which ended in May 2009. But a key question is whether victims of sexual violence and rape committed in the context of the war will come forward and use these mechanisms?
The silence around sexual violence has long posed a challenge to determining its nature, scale and magnitude in the context of Sri Lanka’s long war. On the one hand, this is due to the pervasive culture of shame, which deters women from speaking out. Twenty-five years ago, in Broken Palmyrah Rajini Thiranagama noted that the “loss of virginity in a young girl, even if against her will, meant that she could not aspire to marriage in our society and, if already married, there is a good chance that she will be abandoned”.
The view of rape victims as “spoilt goods” has always been one of the most significant causes of under-reporting. Survivors and their families are however silenced not only by the shame of rape, but also by fear. Fear of reprisal by perpetrators or of further violence from the very institutions meant to protect them. That too remains unchanged.
South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, and one of its most troubled. Rich in oil reserves and with vast fertile lands it could—if peace is assured—feed itself and much of Africa. Instead, it has been racked by internal violence. Since its independence from northern Sudan in 2011, a devastating civil war has left tens of thousands dead and up to two million displaced.
There is little doubt both government and rebel forces were guilty of atrocities during that conflict, many of them ethnic crimes. It is because of the nature of these crimes that the international community must be careful about mechanisms for ensuring peace.
History teaches us that the birth pangs of new nations can be extremely painful, and that the likelihood of violent struggle over divisions of race can be high. Many newly independent nations have subsequently fallen into internal strife. It took the United States 200 years to reduce discrimination in the law, and the country descended into a civil war in the process. Less than a hundred years ago, southern Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom after an internal armed conflict surrounding differences of religion and a desire for self-government.
On 4 April, the International Criminal Court (ICC) suffered the most significant setback in its nearly 14 years of existence.
In a majority decision, judges terminated the case against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and Nairobi radio executive Joshua arap Sang.
This brought to an ignominious end the court’s attempt to administer justice for the crimes committed during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/2008, during which over 1 300 people were killed and more than 600 000 displaced.
‘On the basis of the evidence and arguments submitted to the chamber, Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji and Judge Robert Fremr, as the majority, agreed that the charges are to be vacated and the accused are to be discharged,’ said a statement issued by the ICC. In a subsequent statement, the ICC’s prosecution team blamed a lack of cooperation from Kenya and widespread witness intimidation for its difficulty in obtaining evidence.
It didn’t help, of course, that Kenyatta and Ruto became president and deputy president only after the charges against them were lodged, greatly complicating the politics around the case. Against overwhelming opposition from Kenya, it was never going to be easy to make the charges stick.