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Is international justice finally finding its footing?

A prison sentence for a Congolese warlord. A court ruling for a Chadian dictator to be tried for torture. Some 67 years after Nuremberg trials, international courts and tribunals are making their mark.

By Mike EckelCorrespondent / August 7, 2012

In this March 2011 file photo, an exterior view of the International Criminal Court is seen in The Hague, Netherlands.

Peter Dejong/AP/File

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It would appear that July was a good month for the cause of international justice.

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A glowering Thomas Lubanga Dyilo entered the pages of history in early July when he became the first person to be sentenced to prison by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Congolese warlord’s earlier conviction by the ICC was the first time in legal history that recruiting children into armed conflict was found to be a war crime. Score one for universal justice transcending borders and for expanding definitions of war crimes.

Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice — an institution separate from the ICC — on July 20 ordered that a 1984 treaty obligated Senegal to either prosecute former Chad dictator Hissène Habré for torture, murder, and other charges or extradite him to another country. Score one for the respect of state sovereignty, of treaty law and of universal human rights. And just Tuesday, the ICC for the first time ordered that the victims of Mr. Lubanga's crimes were entitled to reparations: monetary payments for their suffering.

So where are we on the long arc of the moral universe? Sixty-seven years after Nuremberg has it finally, conclusively, bent toward justice? Have the Auschwitzes, Khmer Rouges, Srebrenicas, and Rwandas finally been remanded to a dusty back shelf in a library?

The ICC’s first sentence coincided with its anniversary. The court opened its doors 10 years ago last month, empowered by treaty to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and eventually crimes of aggression. It was a great leap forward for the notion of universal justice: that some crimes are so heinous that their outrageousness transcends borders, language and culture. It’s the idea that some crimes are so unspeakably evil that their punishment must shatter the three-century-old bedrock of international relations: that only a nation has supreme authority over the crimes of its citizens.

This is what the nations that negotiated the Rome Treaty establishing the ICC agreed to. Today, 121 of the world’s 194 countries are signatories.  

What is more noteworthy is what the court has not done and what it cannot do. And may never do.

The ICC as a creature

For all its noble intentions, the ICC is a political creature, the Rome Treaty is the product of intense negotiation and compromise. First and foremost, the court and its legacy are closely tied to the politics of the preeminent organization charged with safeguarding international peace and security: the United Nations Security Council.

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