The Drive for International Justice—and Why it Stalled

by Aryeh Neier at Ideas Letter: The Cold War derailed efforts to create a permanent international court after successful international tribunals following World War II. The push for international justice truly gathered force in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the success of international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The International Criminal Court has now functioned for 20 years, but has disappointed many of its original advocates, with international power structures impeding potential investigations into gross human rights abuses around the world. During the court’s first decade, prosecution efforts focused largely on African nations – in large part because many African governments were among those that ratified the Rome Treaty, thanks to organizing efforts from civil society and leadership from South Africa and Senegal. Meanwhile, governments from countries noted for human rights abuses, including Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and North Korea, did not ratify the treaty, thereby avoiding the court’s jurisdiction. “There was no hope of launching prosecutions in many of the countries where the most severe abuses took place,” Neier writes, while the focus on African criminality “inspired resentment.”

“The International Criminal Court has structural shortcomings that are built into the Rome treaty. They reflect the unwillingness of powerful states, including the United States, to allow their own officials, or officials of their client states, to be held accountable for crimes subject to the Court’s jurisdiction. This is the most important reason that the drive for international justice that began with the Yugoslav tribunal’s establishment over three decades ago seems to have stalled. Also, unfortunately, those who have served as the Court’s prosecutors have not always been as effective as partisans of the Court might have wished in their use of the ICC’s limited powers. It is up to the international human rights movement, which was instrumental in launching the drive for international justice, to come up with ways to reimagine and re-energize the struggle to hold accountable those responsible for the most severe abuses of human rights anywhere in the world.”