Thursday, June 24, 2010

Notes on the First Review Conference on the International Criminal Court

At the first International Criminal Court (ICC) Review Conference earlier this month in Kampala, Uganda, state delegates and civil society organizations from around the world took stock of the Court’s successes and challenges since its inception in 2002. The conference focused on the five situation countries currently before the Court: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Kenya. The Court is at various stages in these five countries, ranging from investigations to ongoing trials.

Those attending the Review Conference debated the effectiveness of Court in achieving a sense of justice for victims, methods for victims and affected communities to participate in the Court, and ways in which the Court could support and strengthen domestic legal systems. The Conference cast into sharp relief the differences between the voices of victims and the state delegates who were reforming the Court. There is a disconnect between the agony of surviving criminality and the politics of passing amendments and making official statements. Those operating at the international level to reform the Court should remember why the Court is so necessary – to allow victims to receive some measure of justice and to end impunity in places where it has thrived for so long.

While we must thoroughly analyze the work of the Court relating to these five countries, we must not forget the situations out of the reach of the ICC – situations including the ongoing abuses in Burma.

War crimes and crimes against humanity are occurring amid systematic impunity in Burma. The ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), commits crimes against its people including unlawful killings, forced labor, sexual and gender-based violence, forced relocation, and the use of child soldiers. These and other crimes are targeted with shocking regularity against members of ethnic groups. Because Burma has not ratified the Rome Statute, the treaty that initiated the ICC, the only way the Court could have jurisdiction over the situation in Burma is through a United Nations Security Council referral.

There is widespread support to end impunity in Burma at the grassroots level. Victims of heinous human rights violations are clamoring for justice. Burma’s domestic legal system offers little comfort. The nation’s courts serve to implement the whims of the ruling elite. Controlled by the SPDC, Burma’s judiciary interprets Orwellian laws that greatly restrict freedoms of association and the press in ways that quash any modicum of dissent or opposition. There are currently over 2100 political prisoners in Burma who were arrested under such laws that prohibit freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. Elections later this year, which experts predict will be mired in corruption and illegality, will lead to the implementation of the 2008 constitution, a document that purports to grant a blanket amnesty for all government officials for all crimes, even those defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.

Victims of Burma are looking elsewhere. The international community must support the call to end impunity in Burma. The challenge facing human rights activists is translating the local energy for justice from within Burma into concrete action at the international level. Those advocating for criminal accountability have achieved several recent landmark successes. In a March 2010 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana recommended the establishment of a commission of inquiry in order to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. His call was echoed by the United Kingdom, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. There is significant momentum toward the creation of a commission of inquiry, and the international community must seize it in order to truly end international crimes in Burma.