KAMPALA, Uganda – Under a blue sky and a hot sun, the Review Conference of the International Criminal Court convened at the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort, a swath of green along the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda. The conference is an exercise in examining the state of the Court, as provided for in the Rome Statute that established the ICC in 1998. While the first week of the conference focuses on the “stocktaking” exercise (looking at issues of victims of mass atrocities and cooperation with the Court), much of the urgency in the discussions is on whether the parties to the Rome Statute should agree to adopt a new crime of aggression that would allow the ICC to prosecute leaders who order armed attacks against their neighbors.
The conference opened yesterday with a series of high-level speeches that ranged from standard to surprising in tone. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave a keynote focused on “ending the era of impunity” and welcoming in “an age of accountability,” while his predecessor Kofi Annan scolded those who had not yet joined the Rome Statute, saying, “What kind of leadership is this which would absolve the powerful from the rules they apply to the weak?”
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke passionately about the reasons why the Court was established, recalling the victims of Rwanda and Srebrenica. He expressed regret that the Cold War had impeded the development of an international tribunal, which had been pointed to by the Nuremberg trials and the Genocide Convention, leaving the victims of Africa, Bosnia, and Cambodia to their doom. He called on the state parties to the Rome Statute to continue their efforts to ensure that “the default position is accountability and impunity.” He scolded countries that had not become parties to the Rome Statute, indicating that six of the G-20 countries are not parties. “The powerful can’t have the rules apply to the weak but not to them,” he said He concluded by calling on everyone there to create a powerful Court so that the ICC can “deter the most determined despot.”
Perhaps the most surprising speech of the day was that of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who dispensed with his written remarks and made a number of controversial statements, with a military officer standing directly behind him. He made the distinction between “just” and “unjust” wars, which gets to the question of whether the ICC should be the body to determine whether a particular military action was taken in legitimate self-defense or not. He then discussed the methods of war, mentioning his own experience fighting for a just cause (throwing out the colonial power) and describing how indiscriminate violence distinguishes “freedom fighters” from terrorists. He went on to discuss what true deterrence was, indicating that he understood that perpetrators at the ICC were put in 5-star hotels, while in his country soldiers who shot civilians were themselves executed. He closed by throwing a wrench into the peace and justice debate by positing a theory of “provisional immunity” where perpetrators who agreed to be part of the peace process could avoid accountability. If they did not agree, or if they agreed and then returned to violence, accountability should be key, Museveni said.
Civil society groups also began a series of important gatherings on topics such as cooperation among the parties, the view of the ICC by African civil society, and dealing with traumatized victims of mass atrocities. Each session was designed to compel diplomats to consider how the Review Conference could deal with each of these issues.
The cross-cutting attendance here is amazing – diplomats from New York, experts from numerous capitals, NGOs from the field, and human rights organizations from around the globe, all trying to determine how best to use international and transitional justice to avoid the human catastrophes of the 20th century. Quite an event.
David Abramowitz is the director of policy and government relations at Humanity United. Previously, he served as chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he was responsible for advising the committee on issues such as international law, international justice, and global human rights, and democracy.