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Celebrating International Criminal Justice, International Criminal Justice Day by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Hague, 8 July 2013

Fifteen years ago, on 17 July 1998, the international community came together to resolutely counteract impunity for international crimes through a new system of global justice.  It was on this day that, for the first time in history, States created a permanent international criminal court with a broad and potentially universal jurisdiction to try the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes known to the international community. In celebrating this historic milestone today, allow me to commemorate these efforts, to step back and recognize the progress made so far, and also to recognize the challenges that lie ahead.

International criminal justice has grown from an idea into reality.  Clearly, international criminal justice is a reality here, in The Hague, a city often called “the justice capital of the world.”   The Hague is host to several international criminal jurisdictions, including the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.   This city is also the home of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, of hearings of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and, of course, of the International Criminal Court.

But international criminal justice has also become a reality in many other parts of the world:  in Sierra Leone and in Lebanon; in all the territories of the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in Uganda, the Central African Republic; in Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire and in Mali, to name just a few.

International criminal justice is in action today, here in this city and elsewhere across the world, thanks to several decades of development and evolution.

First, in the 1940s, the International Military Tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo established the concept of individual criminal responsibility at the international level and established that no individual is above the law. Then, in the early 1990s, the United Nations’ Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.   These ad hoc tribunals, as well as the special courts created in Sierra Leone and Cambodia, have through their painstaking work demonstrated that justice can be delivered at the international level. These jurisdictions played a key part in turning the idea of a permanent international criminal court into a reality.

Created by the Rome Statute of 1998, the ICC, the first permanent international court, is the culmination of the determined efforts of many individuals and States to help ensure accountability for the worst crimes known to humankind: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.   The ICC is a milestone achievement in our efforts to create a world where the protection afforded by international human rights and international humanitarian law is granted to every individual.

After 11 years of existence, the ICC is to be commended for its efforts and achievements. I would like to highlight three, in particular.

Firstly, the ICC has undertaken a substantial workload.   To date, 18 cases in nine situations have been brought before it.  The Court has issued 23 arrest warrants and 9 summonses to appear.   All the summonses have been voluntarily executed and five arrests have been made.   Recently, after living as a fugitive for six years, one individual voluntarily surrendered to the ICC.

However, 12 suspects still remain at large.   I therefore call on all States and relevant entities to increase their efforts to ensure that all fugitives are promptly brought before the ICC.

The second success I would mention is that victims now have a voice in the international criminal legal system. I applaud the fact that the Rome Statute and the practice of the ICC decisively place the victims of serious human rights abuses and international crimes at the centre of the criminal justice system.  Yes, the victims of international crimes have rights, too: the right to justice, the right to truth, the right to remedy and the right to reparation.   The recognition of the rights of victims must remain a fundamental part of the fight against impunity at the international level.

The ICC’s third great success is the palpable impact of the Rome Statute at the national level. To implement the Rome Statute and enable cooperation with the ICC, many States around the world have adopted new laws or adjusted their Constitutions. More than 55 States have already adopted new legislation in this regard and draft laws are pending in about 40 further States. These constitutional and legislative changes demonstrate that the ICC’s work has a snowball effect, building an ever-greater momentum to erode impunity for grave human rights violations and other international crimes.

It is my hope that these changes will eventually lead to the systematic criminalization of these crimes across the globe. Indeed, one of the noteworthy features of the system established by the Rome Statute is its emphasis on the responsibility of States themselves to deliver justice. Through the complementarity principle and by incentivizing trials at national level, the ICC can be a catalyst for greater accountability, and serve as an additional and vitally important layer of justice at the global level when the primary layer of responsibility at national level fails to function.  In this vein, I would like to once again call on all States to ratify the Rome Statute and adopt implementing legislation.

Let me share some remarks about the ICC and the United Nations.   The UN, is tasked with establishing a more secure, just and prosperous world.   This mandate clearly converges with the ICC’s. My specific mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights is to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization, by all people, of all rights established in the Charter of the United Nations and in international human rights laws and treaties.   My mandate thus has clear synergies with the aims of international criminal justice, as we seek to create a global environment that respects the rights of victims of gross human rights violations and other international crimes, and delivers justice.

In this context, my Office seeks to strengthen and streamline the fight against impunity at all levels and to ensure that the rights of victims are upheld.

Specifically, OHCHR assists States in fulfilling their obligations under the international human rights instruments. We provide assistance to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations to claim human rights, and we monitor and publicly report violations. By seeking to prevent and redress human rights violations, OHCHR, through our field offices and as part of peace-keeping missions, also helps States develop and monitor their own long-term national capacities to address human rights issues and to ensure justice and accountability.

Among the current challenges confronting international criminal justice in general and the ICC in particular, four are particularly significant.

The first challenge is that international criminal jurisdictions are dependent on States and international organisations for the fulfilment of their mandates.  We know that international criminal courts and tribunals have no independent enforcement powers.   Hence, they must rely on the cooperation of States and international organisations for a range of critical acts, from the arrest and surrender of suspects and accused persons to the protection of witnesses.  It is essential, therefore, that State Parties, as well as other entities critical to the proper functioning of the ICC, recognize their responsibilities and obligations. States Parties must more fully and systematically support the international criminal jurisdictions, notably the ICC, in fulfilling their mandates.

The second challenge is the continued importance for the international criminal justice system to categorically address sexual crimes in war and peace time, and the gender discrimination that underlies them, with particular focus on crimes committed against women and girls. Far too often, the victims of sexual crimes are denied justice. I take this opportunity to congratulate ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for her commitment to address these specific issues, while continuing to investigate tirelessly all the other crimes within her mandate.

The third challenge of great importance is the international criminal prosecution of persons bearing the greatest responsibility. Ever since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, the world has expected international criminal jurisdictions, including the ICC, to focus on the leaders or architects responsible for international crimes. Too often, these perpetrators remain beyond the reach of domestic courts. They are, and must remain, the obvious focus of attention of all international criminal jurisdictions.  This focus is crucial for the ICC and other international courts to effectively fight impunity, and to optimize the use of their resources. The trials of these leaders, watched by the world, can serve as an important deterrent to future abuses of power, in all countries.  Furthermore, the trials of the leaders responsible for heinous crimes that have affected very large numbers of victims also enable more victims to benefit from justice and redress. 

The fourth challenge is the assertion of independence, impartiality and credibility, which is at the heart of the legitimacy of international criminal justice. International criminal jurisdictions, and in particular the ICC because of its wide reach, are always at risk of being criticised as selective.  It is therefore imperative that we remain faithful to the Rome Statute, and redouble efforts to ensure that our jurisdictions are not only fair, impartial, and independent, but also perceived as such.  The credibility and legitimacy of the international criminal courts and tribunals rely particularly on the sophistication and consistency of their jurisprudence.  Despite the lack of enforcement powers and the limited resources, international criminal jurisdictions are trusted by many ordinary people across the World because they believe in their professionalism, credibility, fairness, impartiality and independence. Let us carefully preserve these attributes.

To conclude, I will cite Nelson Mandela: “Things always seem impossible until you do them.” Making the impossible possible is what international criminal justice is about.   Not so long ago, the creation of a permanent international criminal court seemed impossible.  Now that the Court is here, and here to stay, many of the challenges it faces in turn seem impossible to resolve.  Yet, with our combined strength, we can ensure the ICC will surmount them.

Today, let us relish this anniversary as the symbol of humanity’s aspiration and progress towards justice.  We are morally obliged to continue work towards a more just and peaceful future on behalf of our children and subsequent generations. We can, and we must, move away from a culture of impunity for gross human rights violations and other international crimes, towards a culture of accountability and responsibility.  This is possible.

Thank you.