This month marks the 10th anniversary of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, an institution whose supporters believed it would seriously curb the world’s human rights abusers — but whose critics (including many in the United States) feared it would undermine national sovereignty. The result has been less exceptional on both scores. After a decade, the court has an imperfect record. Still, it represents a cause worth pursuing.
The list of criticisms against the court is longer than its list of convictions. Sweeping war crimes have proved difficult to investigate and prosecute, delays have been frequent and often interminable, and cooperation is lagging even in those countries that have signed on as members. (The United States, fearful of putting its own military under the court’s jurisdiction, has not.) For example, the court’s indictment of the longtime Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide in Darfur was ignored by the African Union, which told its members not to comply with the arrest warrant, amid complaints that the court had a bias against African nations. But it is Africans who suffer from African leaders, as the court’s recent conviction of Liberian President Charles Taylor for atrocities against his own people proved.
It isn’t fair to point to the United States’ failure to join the court for its lack of influence, as some international critics have done; American officials now work closely with the court on investigations, while providing judicial assistance to countries that seek to prosecute their own war criminals.
Even in those cases, which aren’t International Criminal Court prosecutions, much of the moral impetus and urgency derives from the international imprimatur. Despite its deficiencies, the court serves as a reminder to those who would perform the most cruel and depraved acts that justice might be delayed or denied, but it won’t be forgotten. That seems especially true today as Syrian protesters’ carry signs that say, simply, “Assad to The Hague.”