Withdrawals from International Criminal Court Raise Questions

29 November, 2016

Recent withdrawals from the International Criminal Court have raised questions about the court's future.

Russia announced its withdrawal in the middle of November. Earlier, three African nations said they planned to leave.

Observers expect difficult times for the court in the weeks to come. More nations will likely be leaving.

Alex Whiting is a law professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He once supervised investigations and legal action against suspects for the International Criminal Court. He expects the court to survive.

"I think there will be some difficulties, but that the court is not going to collapse," Whiting told VOA. He said one reason is the court's special power to bring action against the world's worst kinds of crimes.

The Court of Last Resort

The International Criminal Court was founded in 2002. It is based in The Netherlands. It is considered the court of last resort – the place where criminal charges are brought after all other legal efforts have failed.

Its aim is to bring to justice people responsible for horrible crimes when their own countries are unwilling or unable to take action. The court investigates and tries cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The most important criminal case yet is against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He is accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He remains in office.

Sudanese government soldiers patrol in South Sudan. South Sudan's army has burned people alive, raped and shot girls, according to UN officials.
Sudanese government soldiers patrol in South Sudan. South Sudan's army has burned people alive, raped and shot girls, according to UN officials.

The Sudanese leader has visited other countries in violation of an international ban on his travel. He was able to avoid arrest during visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The court is currently trying Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Ivory Coast. He faces charges related to thousands of murders and rapes while he was in power.

Guilty of War Crimes

Among those jailed by the court was former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba. He was found guilty of war crimes.

In another case, the court ruled against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, an Islamist rebel, for his part in the 2012 violence in Mali. He admitted guilt to destroying Muslim holy places in the historic city of Timbuktu.

Darryl Robinson is an expert on international law at Queens University Law School in Kingston, Canada. He said the court has done a lot in its short 14-year history.

But there are many serious problems in the world, Robinson said. As a result, the court faces demands to do more.

"On one hand, the International Criminal Court has been active in far more situations than I think anyone would have predicted in its short history," Robinson said. "But on the other hand, there are so many situations in the world that are clamoring for attention."

Russia, like the United States, has not accepted the treaty setting up the court's right to exercise power. Therefore, neither country falls under its authority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country's withdrawal from the court earlier this month. His announcement came after the court's chief prosecutor said that Russia's takeover of Crimea amounted to an "ongoing state of occupation."

There have also been calls for the court to investigate suspected war crimes by Russian forces protecting the government in Syria.

Russia's foreign ministry said the court is not living up to its responsibility to be even-handed.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he might follow Russia out of the International Criminal Court. His comment came after the court warned Duterte over reports of the killing of thousands of people as part of his war on illegal drugs.

Three African Nations Withdraw

Before Russia announced its withdrawal, three African countries -- Burundi, South Africa and Gambia -- announced plans to withdraw from the court. Officials from the three countries said the court unfairly targets African leaders.

All those convicted by the court have been Africans. South Africa says it was pressured to arrest and surrender the Sudanese president to the court when he visited the country last year.

Whiting of Harvard University said it is regrettable a large percentage of the court's cases relate to African countries. But he said court officials argue that they are targeting the world's most serious cases of government-led abuse.

The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she is disappointed at "any act that may undermine" the court's authority to hold people responsible for horrible crimes. She called for more discussions with leaders of Burundi, South Africa and Gambia.

Bensouda also said the court would put more importance on crimes against children.

"It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered," she said.

Such crimes should trouble all good people, she said.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

And I'm John Russell.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

clamor - v. a loud or strong demand for something

authority - n. the power to give orders or make decisions

disappoint - v. to make someone unhappy by not being as good as expected or by not doing something that was hoped for or expected

undermine - v. to make someone or something weaker or less effective

assault - v. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically

convicted – n. to be tried and found guilty of something