Justice Embodied

June 26, 2008

Justice Embodied

Summer 2008

Justice Embodied

By Luis Moreno-Ocampo

Luis Moreno-Ocampo
Luis Moreno-Ocampo

The International Criminal Court represents the greatest advance in international justice since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s first prosecutor, offers his reflections on this important anniversary.

“The inherent dignity and . . . the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

With these words, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), building upon the lessons of massive atrocities, proposed an entirely new approach to the relationship between citizen and state, and to the management of international relations and conflicts. In 1948 the United Nations adopted the declaration and gave force to its core principle: to protect each citizen, we have to protect all citizens.

Fifty years later, in 1998, the drafters of the treaty known as the Rome Statute renewed international commitment to the UDHR by forging the basis for what has become the centerpiece of the international justice system, the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court’s mission is to hold accountable the worst perpetrators of crimes “of concern to the international community as a whole.” The Rome Statute negotiators mandated an independent and impartial prosecutor to investigate and try suspects, in the name of the international community, when individual states fail to meet their responsibility to protect their own citizens—or, worse, when those states entrusted with the protection of civilians turn against them. They created a system of international justice in which victims are given a right to participate— not a privilege granted or withdrawn by a higher authority, but a statutory right.

This is the new law.

For centuries, conflicts were resolved through negotiations without legal constraints. When the world was confronted with massive atrocities, there were essentially two options available: negotiate the impunity of the worst perpetrators or go to war. Idi Amin Dada and “Baby Doc” Duvalier were granted golden exiles, while the countries they ransacked remained engulfed in violence.

When states came together in Rome to create the ICC, they gave the court jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Since then, substantive law has been codified, integrating the content of the Genocide Convention, the Geneva Conventions and the remarkable jurisprudence of the ad hoc tribunals on sexual crimes. Crimes against children were defined.

Since 2003, the ICC has begun to turn the principles of this body of law into reality. Impunity is no longer an option. The stories of our cases—against those who conscripted child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo or those who committed widespread rapes in Central African Republic—are circulating around the globe. The judges of the ICC have issued 11 arrest warrants for suspects from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur. Our first trial is about to begin. The message to perpetrators worldwide is getting louder: There is a growing list of military and political leaders who thought they were unassailable and are now in prison.

The responsibility of the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC is to establish the truth and prove the criminal responsibility of the persons charged. However, in order to end the culture of impunity, we need the international community to play its part by condemning massive crimes with a louder and more unified voice, by demanding justice and the enforcement of the court’s decisions as a requirement of peace. The law is not just for lawyers in a courtroom; it applies to political leaders and negotiators. And this is the biggest challenge facing the Rome system.

It is also time for states to transform their expression of support for the idea of international justice into concrete cooperation and active political backing. States and international organizations involved in the management of international conflicts must respect and promote the framework established by the Rome Statute. Demobilization efforts and the signing of peace agreements must be consistent with the Rome Statute and exclude any promise of immunity. Criminals sought by the ICC must be isolated and marginalized. States must create the conditions for executing arrest warrants against individuals protected by their own governments or their own armies.

We have not yet risen to this challenge. The international community is addressing problems in Uganda and Darfur with old methods: denying the crimes or diplomatically labeling the destruction of entire communities as “intertribal clashes.” The international community has even tried to invent an exit strategy for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the first man against whom the ICC issued an arrest warrant, a man who cut off the lips and ears of his victims and turned schoolgirls into sexual slaves. The international community has also failed to publicly request the Sudanese government to arrest Ahmed Harun, the state minister for humanitarian affairs, a man who forced 2.5 million people into camps in Darfur.

Human rights defenders know that silence does not help victims; it only serves criminals. Indeed, in Darfur today, silence from the international community may have encouraged the Sudanese government’s provocative gesture of promoting Harun instead of removing him from office.

The drafters of the UDHR and the negotiators of the Rome Statute were not naïve idealists; they were working to create laws and institutions to address the threats and challenges of the 21st century. They built the new law on the experience of decades of violence, during which the international community had failed to prevent genocide, and the old methods of conflict management had failed to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As officials of the ICC, we can wait. The destinies of Kony, Harun and others accused of massive crimes await them in the courtroom. But the victims cannot wait. Allowed to remain at large, Kony and Harun continue to threaten those who took tremendous risks to tell their stories. They demand immunity under one form or another as a condition to stopping the violence.

Can we break this system? In 1830, those who proposed to end slavery were considered dreamers—both naïve and troublemakers. Yet they succeeded. We will as well.

Dr. Luis Moreno-Ocampo has indicted presidents, ministers, top military commanders and militia leaders. He served as deputy prosecutor in the 1985 military juntas trial in Argentina, the first case against top commanders responsible for mass atrocities since the Nuremberg trials. Since he was elected as the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in 2003, Moreno-Ocampo has opened investigations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Sudan (Darfur) and the Central African Republic.


Full text of UDHR: www.amnestyusa.org/udhrtext

For history and background: www.udhr.org

To take action: www.amnestyusa.org/justice

For more about the International Criminal Court: www.icc-cpi.int/home.html


Open IC investigations: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Sudan, and Northern Uganda

Arrest warrants issued: 11

Indictees in custody in The Hague: 3

First trial: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, Democratic Republic of Congo

Currently under watch: Afghanistan, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya