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International Criminal Court opens its ‘peace palace’

With permanent home finally open, the ICC must live up to its aspirations

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon during the opening of the International Criminal Court complex in the Hague, The Netherlands. Photograph: EPA/Koen van Weel

When King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially opened the first permanent home of the International Criminal Court yesterday, there was no doubt that many among the 350 watching lawyers, politicians and diplomats were fervently hoping the court’s worst days were already behind it.

Because while there’s no doubt that the ICC’s founding aims – to end impunity for those guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – remain wholly laudable, there’s equally little doubt that the past few years have seen the court repeatedly unable to live up to those aspirations.

The most high-profile case to come before the ICC’s judges in the past 14 years was that of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who denied orchestrating crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and deportation, following the country’s 2007 elections.

Kenyatta should have been the first head of state to stand in the ICC dock. Instead, the charges were dropped by prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who claimed she had been obstructed at every turn by the government of Kenya – something Nairobi vehemently denies.

Marshal evidence

To make matters worse, the case against Kenyatta’s co-accused, Kenyan deputy president William Ruto, was also abandoned last month.

Judges ruled he had no case to answer because – once again – the prosecution had failed to marshal enough evidence to continue.

In the background to the Kenya cases were allegations by the African Union that the ICC was “hunting” African leaders – a claim based on the fact that of the court’s nine current investigations all but one, Georgia, involve African countries.

The continuing refusal of some African states – most notably South Africa last year – to arrest another high-profile fugitive, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, has also been a source of continuing frustration to Bensouda.

At the end of 2014, she told the UN Security Council angrily that she had suspended her investigations in the Darfur region of western Sudan because the council had done nothing to help arrest key suspects.

As a result of that row, South Africa now says it plans to withdraw from the ICC – a departure which would further dent the court’s image on a continent which is home to about one-third of the states who support the Rome Statute.

Even UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon – who attended Tuesday’s ceremony – uncharacteristically gave vent to his frustration last month when he appealed to the deadlocked Security Council to refer the bloodshed in Syria to the ICC.

And while the gleaming new €190 million headquarters was looking its best for the arrival of the dignitaries – including Irish ambassador John Neary and James Kingston, legal adviser at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – the fact is that the court’s finances too have been shaky.

Just two years ago, the Dutch government averted a crisis by stepping in to pay the rent on the court’s previous premises – because, it turned out, many of the countries that should have stumped up had become “reluctant” because of the financial crisis.

So the ICC as an institution is not without serious problems. On the other hand, few would argue that the world would be better off without such a court.

Bill Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the ICC, declared yesterday: “The opening of this peace palace of the 21st century sends a message across the world that international criminal justice is here to stay.”

If Pace is to be proved right, the ICC will have to do better. And if the ICC is to do better, then it will have to get the support the prosecutor needs and deserves – most notably from the UN Security Council.