World Court Makes a Difference, Despite Skeptics | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.03.2008
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World Court Makes a Difference, Despite Skeptics

Five years after its founding, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has done impressive work -- even according to its critics.

Goddess of justice

The ICC has been chasing war criminals since March 2003

Luis Moreno-Ocampo has a five-o'clock shadow and looks more like a Chicago-style private detective than the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. But Ocampo doesn't particularly like the term "international court" anyway.

"We're a safeguard system. We're not some kind of global supreme court," he said.

On March 11, 2003, this "security system" began its work. Eighteen judges were named and, several days later, the chief prosecutor was appointed.

Moreno-Ocampo's job is to investigate each case before it goes to the judges. He only steps in when a country's highest court cannot or does not want to punish a war crime, a crime against humanity or an act of genocide.

Individuals, not states, are tried and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court -- though only if they come from a country that has ratified the court's protocol or committed the crime in a country that has signed it. So far, that has only happened with cases from Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic. Otherwise, the UN Security Council has to commission an investigation, which was the case in Darfur.

ICC focuses on Africa

Luis Moreno-Ocampo

Luis Moreno-Ocampo is from Argentina

Currently, the International Criminal Court is only working on these four cases. "I looked for the most difficult cases and it turned out that they were all in Africa," said Moreno-Ocampo.

The court doesn't have jurisdiction in the Middle East, since the countries there have not ratified its protocol. Neither has the United States. Most of the court's 105 members are in Europe, South America -- and Africa.

The first case that it took on, Congo, has already led to the trial of former militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Last October, a second Congolese war criminal, Germain Katanga, was extradited to The Hague.

Considering the court's greatest weakness -- namely, that it doesn't have its own police but has to rely on help from the country in question or from international peacekeeping forces -- this initial case is seen as a considerable success.

Victims can claim compensation

Apart from the absence of police, head judge Philippe Kirsch sees a second challenge: "This court operates under much more difficult conditions than other tribunals, especially because we investigate conflicts that are still going on."

The court has learned from other tribunals that it is crucial to involve the victims themselves, added Kirsch.

"In earlier tribunals, victims were mainly present as witnesses, but not to demand their own rights," he said. "At the International Criminal Court, they can not only demand their rights but also receive compensation."

Another significant difference from other tribunals is the court's initial chamber, which reviews evidence and separates the important material from the less important. This allows for greater efficiency in subsequent trials.

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo

Lubanga (right) was the first person arrested for trial at the ICC

It also prevents defendants from reading off long, drawn-out monologues or summoning witnesses that extend the trial by months or even years but don't contribute anything constructive -- like Slobodan Milosevic did at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Opposition from the US

Despite its achievements, the International Criminal Court has continually had to defend itself against skeptics. Above all, the US. President George W. Bush has rejected ratifying the court's protocol because he fears that Americans could also be brought to trial.

China, Russia and India also haven't ratified it. Despite the absence of support from these important countries, Kirsch is optimistic.

"There has already been a development in countries that had objected to the International Criminal Court," he said. "Our work is purely judicial and for this reason there's more trust in the court than there was before."

The unshaven chief prosecutor also expressed hope that the court's work would have a positive impact. "Justice is a prerequisite of lasting peace," Moreno-Ocampo said. "I think that justice is our contribution to peace. The court shows that it can help promote justice in the world."

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