Fifteen years ago this week, the International Criminal Court came into being, ushering in a new era in the fight for global criminal justice by creating the first permanent international forum with the mandate to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of mass atrocities.
That day is marked every July 17 as International Justice Day. No longer could powerful people claim impunity for committing crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression.
I remember, as foreign minister at the time, being in the large hall in Rome on July 17, 1998, when the final vote was announced on passage of the statute creating the court, generating a sense of exultation from the delegates when it was clear there would be an overwhelming majority (120 countries for, seven against, 21 abstaining) for the creation of this brand-new international body defending the emerging human-rights standard of protecting individuals against the violence which had scarred the decade in places like Rwanda and Srebrenica.
It is habit with anniversaries to reflect. How have these high hopes for the court been met? First, a disclaimer: Fifteen years is not a long time to make a judgment, considering the initial period was heavily involved in just putting in place the infrastructure, logistics and procedures of a new global institution.
But even with that caveat, the ICC has gone through an activist period of investigations under its first prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, and its first president and judge, Philippe Kirsch of Canada.
It is now entering a new period of reorganizing and consolidation under its new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and president Sang-Hyun Song. The work that has begun builds upon the successful indictment of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the conviction of Charles Taylor of Liberia by Special Court for Sierra Leone. There was the daring indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2009 for his alleged crimes in the killing of innocent people in South Sudan and Darfur.
Many lesser cases are on the docket, including some 30 indictments, and there is no doubt the court has become an important player in the ongoing, increasingly difficult task of institutionalizing a human-rights-based approach to global governance, but also to the defeat of impunity by state actors who have historically found themselves above the law.
The court has not been without its problems and its critics. The recent indictment of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya for his alleged part in inciting violence and killings following elections in 2007 has brought a strong reaction from African states, claiming the court focuses too much of its work on Africa.
More serious is the continued argument that by applying indictments against those in conflicts, it impedes the search for peaceful solutions. A case in point is Joseph Kony from Uganda, who asserts he would come to the table to end his violence if the court drops its charges.
The court, however, perseveres and is involved in the work to help set up regional courts to take account of the cultural and social differences in the application of justice. Its pioneering work in giving full standing to victims to be heard has set new judicial standards and it is slowly building an infrastructure of international criminal justice around the world. And it is clear that its role as a deterrent against those in power who otherwise would commit crimes continues to grow.
Perhaps the best judgment after these 15 years is that it does stand as one of the few established and respected institutions internationally that upholds the rule of law, a rare beacon, giving hope to many that their human rights will be respected and acted upon.
At a time where there is such fractured support for any form of international consensus and so many states are ignoring their responsibilities to defend and protect vulnerable populations, such as in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is vital that the ICC stand as a counterpoint to these regressive trends.
That is why its anniversary should be a time to restore confidence in our collective attention as global actors and reaffirm our commitment to the values it is based upon. It is also an opportunity to revisit the concept of justice and to recognize its role in moving us all towards global peace, with an eye focused on combating impunity and protecting the most vulnerable.
Lloyd Axworthy, the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, is a former Canadian minister of foreign affairs.