Human Rights Watch calls for global solidarity as International Criminal Court clocks 22 amid unprecedented U.S. pressure

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Member countries of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should use the 22nd anniversary of its founding to show support for the court in the face of unprecedented United States pressure, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday. The court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, was adopted on July 17, 1998, a day now commemorated as the Day of International Criminal Justice.

“The ICC has made uneven progress in bringing those responsible for serious crimes to fair trial, but Washington’s threat of severe sanctions against court officials could jeopardize hard-won gains,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “ICC member countries should maintain their opposition to US obstruction and publicly endorse the court’s mandate to pursue fair trials, regardless of the defendant’s nationality.”  

On June 11, 2020, US President Donald Trump issued a sweeping executive order authorizing asset freezes and family travel bans that could be imposed against certain ICC officials. These sanctions, normally used against alleged terrorists and human rights violators, could be applied to judges, investigators, and prosecutors seeking justice for mass atrocities. The Trump administration has repeatedly threatened action to deter ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine that could probe conduct by US and Israeli nationals and revoked the ICC prosecutor’s US visa in 2019. The executive order also implies that sanctions could be applied to those who assist court investigations, potentially chilling broader cooperation with the ICC.

The ICC has faced politicized opposition before but invoking the coercive power of US sanctions is a significant escalation of efforts to undermine the court and thwart justice for victims. In response, 67 ICC member countries, including key US allies, issued a joint cross-regional statement. This strong signal was accompanied by statements from the European Union, the president of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties, and nongovernmental organizations in the US and globally. Member countries should sustain efforts to support the court and demonstrate to Washington that they will back court officials in providing impartial justice, Human Right Watch said.

The US threats coincide with a number of crucial processes underway at the ICC. Following a request by the court’s leadership, member countries created a panel of nine independent experts to assess the work of the court and recommend ways to improve its performance. This followed setbacks in key prosecution cases, surprising judicial decisions, and unsatisfactory limits in the court’s impact for victims.

The panel is looking into various issues related to the governance of the court and the work of the judiciary and Office of the Prosecutor. The panel’s final recommendations are expected by the end of September. In the meantime, member countries have also identified priorities to address, including their cooperation with the court. It is crucial for these efforts by various stakeholders to respect the principles of judicial and prosecutorial independence, Human Rights Watch said.

“There have been notable steps forward at the ICC over the past year, including the surrender of the first suspect charged with the government-backed crimes committed in Darfur since 2003,” Dicker said. “The ICC only comes into play when national courts fail to do their job, and the expert review process should check that it is up to its task as the ‘court of last resort.’”  

Member countries will also elect the court’s next prosecutor and several new judges later this year. Ensuring that the ICC has the strongest possible leadership is a key responsibility of member countries. The Assembly of States Parties has created committees to assess candidates. On June 30, a committee on the prosecutor’s election that reviewed nearly 90 applications with the help of a panel of experts recommended a shortlist of 4 candidates.

Public hearings with these candidates are being planned, as member countries work toward identifying a consensus first choice. To ensure that the court can fully carry out its mandate in these challenging times, Human Rights Watch has called for a strictly merit-based approach and the election of a prosecutor with extensive practical experience in criminal cases and a commitment to resolutely pursue cases, independent of any political pressure.  

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The work of the ICC is closely linked with broader justice efforts to satisfy victims’ rights to access justice – in national courts, through international investigative bodies, and through international and national cooperation in hybrid institutions. Advances over the past year show that progress for justice continues, Human Rights Watch said. They include the landmark unanimous International Court of Justice ruling ordering Myanmar not to commit and to prevent genocidal acts against ethnic Rohingya, and the first case, in Germany, against former Syrian officials for widespread torture.

“Although the ICC is being tested like never before, it’s important for governments to seize this moment to make clear their support,” Dicker said. “Strong political backing, using the review process to strengthen the court’s performance, and the election of the most qualified leadership are essential to ensuring that the ICC is able to deliver meaningful justice.”

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