International Justice Day: NPWJ calls for stronger commitment to the fight against impunity

Brussels - Rome, 17 July 2017

Today, 17 July, is International Justice Day: after years of campaigning by No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) and others, this date was adopted by the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC) during the first Review Conference of the Rome Statute held in Kampala, Uganda, in June 2010. International Justice Day marks the anniversary of the adoption by 120 States in 1998 of the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC, which entered into force on 1 July 2002.
The past year was a particularly challenging one for international justice, and for the International Criminal Court, with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide starting and continuing in numerous places and with the world’s most vulnerable people continuing to bear the brunt of crimes that remain unstopped and unaddressed. During the second half of 2016 in particular, the international environment for the fight against impunity seemed to be weakened and heading towards its lowest point since the adoption of the Rome Statute. Towards the end of the year, three States Parties to the ICC Rome Statute had formally signalled their intention to withdraw from the Rome Statute, while the United Nations Security Council continued to be deadlocked in forming a concrete response to the crimes being committed in Syria despite the horrendous events unfolding in Aleppo.
As it turned out, however, these two situations actually became occasions that allowed the international community to stand up for justice and to stand on the side of victims. During the annual Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court in November 2016, States Parties took the opportunity to state their strong support for the ICC and for international justice more broadly, declaring they would not permit the principles on which the Rome Statute was founded to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Addressing the opening session of the Assembly, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made an extraordinary plea: “Renewed attacks on the Court may well be in the offing. It will take all the nerve and resources of the truly committed States Parties to resist such challenges. Now is not the time to abandon the post. This is the time for resolve and strength.” That plea was answered as State after State spoke about their support for the Rome ICC system, the need to preserve the integrity of the Rome Statute and the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the ICC. The immediate crisis passed, as eventually two of the three States threatening withdrawal changed their minds, but there is a continuing need to remember the High Commissioner’s plea and to continue to hold firm and take action in favour of justice and redress in all situations where horrendous crimes are being committed.
The following month saw the UN General Assembly, under the leadership of Liechtenstein, step in and take action on Syria where the UN Security Council was unable to do so, creating the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM or Mechanism) to support the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed in Syria. While a small step, this was the first concrete action taken by the international community collectively to clear the way for accountability for the crimes in Syria and redress for the victims. Its mandate is limited by design to the collection, organisation, analysis and sharing of information relating to crimes with bodies that have jurisdiction to take concrete action, notably in the form of criminal prosecutions, whether at the national or international level. While seen by some as a fault, this limited mandate both allowed the Mechanism to be created and provides its best chance for success, by avoiding an overload of work and providing achievable and realistic goals. Much of the proof will be in the pudding, particularly when it comes to adopting procedures and protocols that adhere to the highest possible international standards, including on chain of custody, interviewing standards, risk management for staff and witnesses and policies for dealing with children and crimes against children, among other vulnerable groups and under-prosecuted crimes; and learning from the experiences of international courts and tribunals, particularly on outreach, and adapting them to their own situation. The international community’s role is still not over, as it needs to provide much-needed financial support as well as political support, including through cooperation with the Mechanism, but the appointment of the new Head of the Mechanism signals clearly that the fight against impunity in Syria has renewed impetus and must be part of any political solution to the conflict.
These two examples are small, in the overall scheme of things. The election of President Duterte in the Philippines began a series of extra-judicial killings in the so-called war on drugs that have risen to the level of crimes against humanity. Minorities in northern Iraq continued to suffer horrendous crimes at the hands of ISIS and other fighting factions, worsening an already untenable humanitarian crisis. Children continue to suffer disproportionately during times of armed conflict and political violence, while sexual and gender-based violence continues to be unleashed on vulnerable members of society, female and male alike. Countless atrocities continue in countless situations around the world.
Yet these two examples give us hope that justice and accountability live to fight another day and that in the end, they will prevail. In the meantime, it continues to be of critical importance for all States Parties to fulfil their obligations under the Rome Statute and cooperate fully with the ICC, notably by ensuring as a matter of priority the enforcement of all its outstanding arrest warrants. We cannot – and must not – forget that there are still numerous fugitives from justice: their prompt arrest and transfer to face trial is the least that their victims deserve. Countries must not allow their territory to become a safe haven in which alleged war criminals may hide, no matter their position in their State of origin. As is recognised in customary international law and the Rome Statute, there is no immunity when it comes to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
For further information, contact Alison Smith, Director Of International criminal Justice Program, on or +32-2-548 39 12 or Nicola Giovannini, Press & Public Affairs Coordinator, on or +32-2-548-3915.