Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The International Criminal Court (ICC) marked its 20th anniversary on July 17. Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC Outreach Officer for Uganda spoke to Ronald Musoke on why the court remains important.
How would you rate the performance of the ICC over the last 20 years?
The creation of the Rome Statute in 1998 was a historic event in itself, marking a landmark in efforts towards justice and accountability for serious crimes. The crimes under the ICC jurisdiction are the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. These include sexual violence, destruction of cultural heritage, and use of child-soldiers in hostilities, to name a few. It took the work of thousands of diplomats, human rights activists, and lawyers to build a permanent International Criminal Court and the Trust Fund for Victims. Today, with 123 states parties, with a fully-functioning ICC and very busy Trust Fund for Victims, justice is in motion. Our institution may not be perfect and more work surely needs to be done but the global movement for accountability that started 20 years ago is alive. People worldwide are now asking for their leaders to be held accountable. The question is not if trials should be conducted, but where and when.
What’s your view on the continued accusation by some African heads of state that the ICC deliberately targets African presidents yet the same violations happen elsewhere in the world?
ICC’s focus is not on a specific continent, country, party, or community. Its mission is to prosecute the perpetrators of the most serious crimes and to establish justice for the benefit of victims and future generations. The ICC is not a western institution (because) over 120 countries are states parties to the Rome Statute, representing all regions. The perception that the ICC is focusing on Africa is reducing the continent to 20 suspects, instead of seeing Africa in the face of thousands and thousands of victims. Of the court’s on-going 11 investigations, five were referred to the court by the concerned African states parties themselves (Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Mali) recognising the inability to address the crimes at stake at the national level, and two were referred by the United Nations Security Council (Darfur and Libya) where African states are represented. In addition to that, Côte d’Ivoire voluntarily accepted the jurisdiction of the court, giving the prosecutor the possibility to open an investigation. In Kenya, it was the political scene that prevented the Kenyan authorities from self-referring the post-elections violence to the court, so the ICC prosecutor opened an investigation, with the chamber’s authorisation, but only after thorough discussions with the Kenyan authorities. Moreover, the ICC-Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) has also opened an investigation in Georgia and developments in this investigation should be up coming. The ICC-OTP is also conducting preliminary examinations on other continents, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Palestine, and Ukraine. The court would not exist without the strong support of African states and civil society who were actively involved in the court’s establishment. 33 African states have ratified the Rome Statute, making Africa the most represented region in the court’s membership. The court has also benefited from the professional experience of Africans. At the ICC, four out of the 18 current judges of the court are African.
What do you make of sentiments that until some states that seem to be “bigger than global justice” ratify the Rome Statute, the work of the ICC will remain a farce?
Ratifying an international treaty is a sovereign matter and all states have a sovereign right to decide to join or not. The ICC is, however, keen on promoting the universality of the Rome Statute and dispelling misperceptions about the ICC. While 60 states were needed for the statute to enter into force, over 120 nations have now joined the system. The referral by a unanimous decision of the UN Security Council is a demonstration of the growing confidence placed in the ICC as an independent judicial institution by those states. Note that even though some states are not parties to the Statute, it does not prevent them from cooperating with the court in a number of areas such as seizing and freezing of assets, witness protection, or arrest. One of the best ways to convince states that are still reluctant to join the statute is for the ICC to continue showing that it is successfully fulfilling its mandate.
In Uganda, what would you say has been the ICC’s proudest moment in delivering justice to the victims of the war in the north?
The opening of the (Dominic) Ongwen trial marked a new phase in the court’s activities in Uganda. This turning point has had an impact on the intensity of our outreach activities in Uganda. While they had started long ago, our activities have intensified with an actual trial ongoing regarding alleged crimes in the region.
Any personal reflections from your outreach work?
On a personal level, it brings me a sense of pride to note the progressive understanding communities have reached on the ICC mandate and the trial of Dominic Ongwen. We have been together in this journey for over ten years. I have witnessed an evolution of questions and trends from the basic to the sophisticated as well as growing interest to follow ICC judicial proceedings. But the other important aspect of the Rome Statute impact in Uganda is the ongoing activities of the Trust Fund for Victims, with nine projects in 18 districts of northern Uganda. Those projects developed together with implementing partners have included physical rehabilitation (such as reconstructive surgery, general surgery, bullet and bomb fragment removal, prosthetic and orthopaedic devices; screening, medical referral and support for victims who have suffered from gynaecological/reproductive complications) and psychological rehabilitation (such as individual and group-based trauma counselling; community sensitisation workshops; direct mental health services and clinical mentoring to counsellors).
For many followers of proceedings at the ICC, the process remains too technical, slow and quite limited for the victims of the northern Uganda war. How have you helped ordinary people follow the proceedings in a simplified manner?
ICC proceedings are indeed processes of law that can be technical for the general public. However, ensuring that the communities most affected by the cases before the ICC have access to and understand the judicial proceedings at all stages, is a priority for the court. Special efforts have been made by the court to render the proceedings accessible to communities in northern Uganda. While they had started long ago, our activities have intensified with an actual trial ongoing. We have launched the “Access to Justice” project to respond to the information demands of affected communities on the ongoing trial, including through video screening equipment at 23 locations; interactive radio programmes and listening clubs with the affected people; as well as activities with cultural, religious leaders as well as journalists. Furthermore, as we have done in the past few years, the ICC continues working in partnership with local and international actors present in the north to ensure the timely dissemination of the information at different levels. The victims formally participating in the proceedings also have a privileged and regular contact with their lawyers, helping them to better understand the proceedings but also to bring back their views and concerns in the courtroom.
What do you make of the fact that some victims have died without seeing justice done to perpetrators like Dominic Ongwen and Joseph Kony?
We understand the feeling of anxiety of the victims and we have deep concern and sympathy for them. However, the ICC cannot try suspects in their absence. The ICC has no police force and therefore, the cooperation of states with the court is highly needed to effect ICC arrest warrants. What was created in Rome was not an autonomous court but a global system designed to incite states to assume responsibility for investigating and prosecuting the most serious crimes and to cooperate with the ICC to implement its mandate. As noted by a community leader from Abok at a recent ICC outreach session: “The community screening of the trial of Dominic Ongwen not only demystifies the complex judicial processes, it makes them more relevant and meaningful to victims and affected communities.”
What new mechanisms of criminal justice is the ICC looking at to rein in more of the perpetrators of gross human rights violations?
In general, the ICC welcomes any initiative to ensure justice for the victims through genuine national and regional judicial mechanisms as long as those are compatible with the Rome Statute— the court’s founding treaty. The ICC is not meant to replace all other courts but to complement them.The ICC is already cooperating with regional and hybrid courts, such as the recently-created special court in the Central African Republic, in the extent possible and in full respect of its mandate and independence.
Going forward, what will be the focus of the ICC over the next 20 years?
The expectations and challenges are high. But I hope the ICC will benefit from a stronger states’ cooperation to meet these challenges. For example, regarding the situation in northern Uganda, one suspect is still at large, and the cooperation of states with the court is highly needed to effect this. This is the same for all other suspects who have pending arrest warrants against them. I hope the ICC will continue developing as an innovative and impartial court of law and acting as a model for the highest standards of fair trials. Governed by the complementarity principle, the ICC can play a role in inciting the governments to strengthen their national judicial systems to build, collectively, a more just world.While the ICC has two-thirds membership of sovereign states, it would need more states to join to become truly