A historic moment for international justice

By Stefan Simanowitz, Regional Media Editor at Amnesty International

Like proverbial buses, it seems you can wait ages for a landmark international justice case, and then four come along at the same time.

By any standards, the past fortnight has seen some remarkable developments for international justice. 

A week ago, on 24 March, Radovan Karadžić was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for his role in genocide and other crimes committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), including for the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica. 

Whilst this story may have grabbed the front page headlines, it came amid a flurry of activity at The Hague’s other international court, the International Criminal Court (ICC).

On 21 March, the ICC convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo for criminal acts committed by troops under his effective control in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. He was formerly a Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, although the crimes were committed at a time when he headed an opposition militia.

Not only was it the first time that the ICC had convicted someone for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity, but it was also the first conviction in international criminal law to classify the rape of men as sexual violence. In addition it was the first ICC conviction based on command responsibility, namely that those in charge may be held criminally liable for the actions of those under their command. More than 5,000 victims participated in the Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo trial, a far greater number than in any other case before the ICC.

Then on 23 March the ICC ruled that there was enough evidence to put former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, Dominic Ongwen, on trial. The Pre-Trial Chamber confirmed all 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Uganda between 2002 and 2005, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the conscription and use of child soldiers. He will become the first person to stand trial for forced pregnancy under international criminal law and the first person before the ICC to face charges of forced marriage.

The case is also ground-breaking as Dominic Ongwen, as a former child soldier, is both a victim and a perpetrator. The case is additionally significant in that, whilst Uganda has repeatedly voiced its criticism of the ICC, it cooperated with Dominic Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague in 2015 rather than trying him domestically.

The day after the ruling in Ongwen’s case, the ICC confirmed that it would prosecute Malian jihadist, Ahmad Al Faqi Al-Mahdi, allegedly a leader of Ansar Eddine, a mainly Tuareg movement associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for “the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments”. Ahmad Al Faqi Al-Mahdi has indicated that he will plead guilty to the charges, which relate to attacks on several mosques and mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012. It would be the first time that anyone has faced charges at the ICC or at any other tribunal for the destruction of cultural landmarks.

The fact that all of these cases were heard in the same week may be merely coincidental, but it nevertheless sends out a strong signal that commanders who commit or permit atrocities will ultimately be held responsible. They can run – in some cases for decades, and in Karadžić’s even under a fake identity – but the ICC is demonstrating unequivocally that they cannot hide from justice forever.

The fact that all of these cases were heard in the same week ... sends out a strong signal that commanders who commit or permit atrocities will ultimately be held responsible.
Stefan Simanowitz, Regional Media Editor

Some victims in BiH are unhappy with the 40-year sentence handed down by the ICTY given the gravity of the crimes for which Karadzic was convicted. Two decades after the war in BiH, thousands of people are still missing, and the majority of perpetrators have still not been brought to justice. Last week’s verdict is nevertheless a significant milestone for the ICTY as it nears the end of its mandate. The ICC cases also come at an important time as the Court — which relies entirely on individual states to carry out its arrest warrants — faces increasing financial and political challenges.

While the ICTY had limited jurisdiction both in time and space, the ICC is envisaged as the permanent tribunal to ensure justice for victims of crimes under international law. Unfortunately attacks on the Court have intensified in the past year. Kenya and South Africa both recently indicated that they may withdraw from the ICC’s Statute, and the African Union has endorsed the consideration of a roadmap for possible withdrawal from the ICC by its member states.

In these circumstances it is imperative to recognize that the Court’s importance as a key route to justice for many victims is more vital than ever. More than 10,000 victims have engaged in the ICC’s proceedings so far from countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Libya, Mexico, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Ukraine. Despite this, since it was set up in 2002, only 10 official investigations have been opened and an additional seven preliminary examinations undertaken. Thirty-nine people have been indicted in the ICC, including Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and ex-Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo.

Whilst international law and the means by which it is enforced are far from perfect, they remain the best mechanism that the world has to challenge impunity, ensure accountability and provide justice for victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Stefan Simanowitz

Whilst international law and the means by which it is enforced are far from perfect, they remain the best mechanism that the world has to challenge impunity, ensure accountability and provide justice for victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These recent advances have proved that they can be effective.