Today the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect celebrates the World Day for International Justice. Holding perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable for their actions plays an essential role in delivering justice for victims of mass atrocity crimes and preventing their recurrence. Every state, and the international community as a whole, has a role to play in this historic battle against impunity.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the only permanent international court for the prosecution of individuals accused of mass atrocity crimes. As a “court of last resort,” since 2002 the ICC has tried perpetrators with crimes that include the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sexual violence in Central African Republic (CAR), and systematic destruction of humanity’s shared cultural heritage at Timbuktu, Mali. In doing so, the Court has helped establish that any person, regardless of rank or office, can be held accountable for atrocities that violate international law and stain the conscience of humanity.
Alongside the ICC, domestic and regional mechanisms, as well as ad hoc and mixed tribunals, have also contributed to strengthening international justice. From the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, worldwide we are witnessing systematic attempts to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable. In 2016 a federal court in Argentina convicted seventeen former senior military and intelligence officers from Argentina and one from Uruguay of crimes against humanity committed during the 1970s and 80s. Principles of international justice have also been reinforced by the convictions of Chad’s former military dictator, Hissène Habré, at the Extraordinary African Chambers within the courts of Senegal and former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s conviction at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Finally, the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have convicted more than 145 individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda.
The Global Centre commends the UN General Assembly’s December 2016 decision to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria since 2011. We also acknowledge the efforts of the UN Human Rights Council to create independent investigative mechanisms, including the team of experts recently appointed to investigate more than 80 mass graves discovered in the Kasaï region of the DRC.
But in too many parts of the world the promise of international justice remains unfulfilled. Every day civilians in Burundi, Sudan and Yemen face the ongoing threat of mass atrocities and see past crimes go unpunished. No one has been held legally accountable for the genocide committed against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq by the so-called Islamic State armed group. Meanwhile the establishment of specialized courts in South Sudan and CAR have faced interminable delays, and credible international investigative mechanisms have been blocked from entering Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
For victims, recognition of their suffering and accountability for violations and abuses perpetrated against them can have immense restorative value. On this World Day for International Justice, we must remind ourselves of the importance of pursuing justice and accountability for all mass atrocities, not just as an institutional responsibility and legal obligation, but as a moral necessity.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA