Commemoration of International Criminal Justice Day

The International Criminal Justice Day is commemorated on 17 July; this is the day that marks the entry into force of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), which took place ten years ago in 2002.

During a recent interview, Mona Rishmawi, Chief of the Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch of the UN Human Rights Office, stated, “those who commit gross violations of human rights or violations of international humanitarian law that amount to international crimes, such as systematic murder, torture, rape, enforced disappearance, enslavement, and destruction of property now have no safe haven”.

She added, “The ICC is the first international justice mechanism of its kind in the world. It sends a strong message to perpetrators of human rights violations around the globe that you can run, but you cannot hide. You will be found, and you will be held to account for what you have done.”

Question: Can you tell us about the International Criminal Justice mechanisms that have been put in place to date?

While the International Justice process is still at the infancy stage, it is developing rapidly. It has its roots in the universal human rights movement, which itself grew out of the atrocities committed during the World War II. More than 70 years later, those who committed those horrors are still being pursued beyond the trials that took place after the war in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

And, many of us remember how from 1979 onwards people were massacred in cold blood, in the killing fields of Cambodia. The international community in Cambodia felt that very little could be done at the time. But, more than thirty years later, we have triumphed there, and those who were responsible for the killing fields are being brought to justice.

International justice has evolved such that no one who commits such crimes is immune from being held to account, even heads of States. We have seen General Pinochet facing justice in the 1990s. We have also recently seen Charles Taylor, the former Head of State of Liberia, being tried and convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

This is just one, highly significant aspect of the evolution that has stemmed from the work of the ad hoc tribunals. It is important to look at the records of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The ICTY was established by the Security Council in to bring to justice those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991 and thus contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace in the region. Over 160 persons were indicted by the ICTY, including heads of state, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, and interior ministers. More than 60 individuals have been convicted to date, and, currently, more than 30 individuals are facing trial in on-going proceedings before the Tribunal.

The ICTR was established in November 1994 to bring to justice those responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994. To date, 72 individuals have been tried before, and the ICTR has completed 45 cases, while 17 cases are pending appeal.

So, we have concrete success stories even if international justice sometimes seems at a slow pace. At the same time, our justice mechanisms are growing stronger and stronger, and the pace of justice is gathering speed.  This year, we have the first conviction from the International Criminal Court of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former rebel leader who was recently sentenced to 14 years for the recruitment of children to be used as child soldiers. This was unimaginable a few years ago.

There is progress as you can see. Of course we would like to see much more cases, because the current number does not reflect the extent of the atrocious acts being committed, and for these justice mechanisms to fulfil their deterrent role there should be many more of these trials. We also need to see national courts fulfilling their roles - these trials should be held at the national level too, not only in The Hague.

The message that those who commit violations cannot and will not escape justice has to remain unwavering, at the international and national levels.

Question: What was the reaction to the convictions of former Head of State of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and former rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo?

Our Office stands against impunity for gross violations of human rights. We would like to see those responsible for such violations held to account. We care about this for two reasons: The first reason is that the justice is very important for the victims and their families. They need justice to find closure on what actually happened. 

People really have this embedded sense of justice. While it will never bring their family members, friends, loved ones back or restore them to the people they once were, receiving justice can help to address the loss and relieve the pain. Justice is also necessary for the community as a whole.

Through the justice process, an account of what actually happened, who was involved and responsible, the truth comes out. This record of events is incredibly important both to the individual victims, but also because it prevents the victims from being silenced by those who commit these terrible acts. And, they provide a means by which we can all learn about how to prevent such violations from being committed again in the future, such as the policies and structures that must be put in place to ensure non-recurrence.  At the same time, trials can give victims recognition for what has happened to them.

However, we also know that the trial process is not enough to address the consequences of gross human rights violations. Victims need more, and they deserve more. They need reparations to assist them overcome the damage they have suffered. Reparations can include compensation, but also medical and psychological assistance, symbolic reparations like memorials, and other forms. 

One learns much more than by just putting a lid on the past and assumes that nothing happened. It is also a very good lesson learned about how human beings react and why they react to certain things. And it is lessons learned for the future, what policies we need to put in place to prevent these violations. If we do not want recurrence of these violations, we must send a strong signal that the perpetrators will be held to account.
Question: What is the UN Human Rights Office approach to empowering national justice mechanisms since not all perpetrators can or will be tried at the ICC?

We believe that it is the duty of every State to both put mechanisms in place to protect its people against violations, and also to ensure accountability in the face of violations. But this is not just a belief. The international human rights obligations of States make it a reality, and it is a key principle upon which the International Criminal Court operates.

Fundamentally, this means that the States’ criminal justice systems must have the capacity to conduct trials of alleged perpetrators in accordance with international human rights standards. Of course, there is a lot we can do to assist States with, but a few examples include ensuring that the conduct in question is criminalised in national legislation so that prosecutions can be brought, training all actors in a criminal justice system – judges, prosecutors, defence counsel, court management staff, and supporting the development of victim and witness protection programmes.

There are also situations in which atrocities have been committed but States are unable to provide the necessary justice themselves. We believe that, in such cases, the international community cannot look the other way. Quite to the contrary, the international community has a responsibility to ensure accountability, and this can take place through the developing system of international justice, with its established justice mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, that we spoke about at the beginning.

24 July 2012

See also