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The ICC in the Spotlight

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The ICC in the Spotlight

Posted by Laura Heaton on May 29, 2010

The ICC in the Spotlight

Teams are being finalized, strategies rehearsed, enthusiasts are lining up to get the best view of the action. We’ve already seen a fair amount of trash-talking coming from predictable rivals. Africa’s about to take center stage in next month’s international drama.

Indeed, human rights activists, the much-anticipated review conference for the International Criminal Court (ICC) is set to open on Monday and run through June 11 in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The Kampala conference has been called a “watershed moment” for countries to renew their support for the ICC.

The hot button issue in Kampala is expected to be the crime of aggression, which was included in the Rome Statute as one of the four crimes over which the ICC has jurisdiction but was left undefined. (War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are the other three.) In 1998, defining the crime and determining the conditions under which the ICC could exercise its jurisdiction proved such an explosive issue that representatives in Rome were concerned that trying to come to consensus could derail the whole meeting. So they opted to put off the decision.

Twelve years has afforded some clarity but little consensus, though there seems to be a trend among advocacy groups in the United States to caution that giving the ICC jurisdiction over the crime of aggression could paralyze the Court. The Open Society Institute took a firm stance against adding aggression to the Court’s docket, noting that since it is a crime committed against a state (whereas the other three crimes are committed against individuals), the ICC would be thrust into politicized situations. (The U.S. in Iraq and Israel in the Palestinian territories are often cited as situations that the ICC could be called on to investigate — “politicized” is probably an understatement.) Calling on an outside body, such as the UN Security Council, to decide when an investigation into aggression is warranted invites involvement from outside actors that would dilute the ICC’s independence. Furthermore, the ICC already has its plate full, groups have argued — what with 13 outstanding warrants, investigations open in five countries, and preliminary investigations open in a number of countries around the world.

“Given the wide range of perspectives which currently exist on the aggression amendment, pushing it to a vote in Kampala risks undermining the cohesiveness of states parties that has been so essential to the Court’s establishment and mission,” wrote OSI and 39 other civil society organization in a letter (pdf) sent to foreign ministers earlier this month. Human Rights Watch expressed similar apprehensions but opted to avoid taking a position either way.

Those in favor of the amendment — in particular some member states in Africa — argue that the crime of aggression will deter intervention in their countries from outside the continent and reduce conflict between African member states. Some legal scholars also argue that prosecuting the crime of aggression is a necessary deterrent to “illegal wars.” (For more on this topic, visit the website of Nuremburg prosecutor Ben Ferencz, one of the most outspoken proponents of giving the ICC jurisdiction over aggression.)

To avoid the mine field surrounding aggression, most groups gearing up for the Kampala conference have chosen instead to emphasize the great opportunity presented by the forum for governments — whether they’re ICC members or not — to raise the profile of the ICC and put those individuals wanted by the Court for the most egregious crimes on notice. Holding the conference in such close proximity to people who have suffered from these heinous crimes — from Uganda to neighboring Congo, Sudan, Kenya, and the Central African Republic — affords a unique chance to strengthen ties between the Court and the communities and individuals awaiting justice.

Let’s hope that the participants at next week’s conference come to the table with concrete ideas for how to strengthen the ICC, deliver those wanted for crimes to The Hague, and bolster popular support for the Court. It’s going to be an exciting two weeks to follow. (And as the Kampala conference closes on June 11, we can tune into the World Cup, opening the same day.)


This post originally appeared on’s Human Rights blog.

Photo: The International Criminal Court in The Hague