Three countries in Africa, most notably South Africa, have signaled they plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. That tribunal, set up only in 2002 by the United Nations to prosecute perpetrators of genocide and other mass atrocities, has achieved only a handful of convictions. Yet most have been against Africans. Many leaders on the continent either resent this apparent bias or, more likely, fear being next for ICC prosecution.
If more countries withdraw from the court’s jurisdiction, human rights activists worry that its mission of bringing justice for victims of mass violence could be slowed. On a large scale, a weaker ICC might set back decades of progress in showing that universal ideals, such as international law, can transcend the narrow interests of tribes and nations.
In other words, if justice is a common desire of humanity, so must be its global application. The ICC’s role is to prosecute the worst of crimes whenever a country fails to do so within its borders.
While the court has 124 members, it is still a new experiment in bringing universal justice. From the start, it was less than universal by the refusal of China, Russia, and the United States to join it for various reasons. And while the court has lately started to probe atrocities in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere, the extent of violence in Africa has allowed it to focus more easily on the worst despots in that region. Its chief prosecutor is an African, which further argues against the court being biased.
The ICC faces similar headwinds as does another recent UN invention: the idea that countries can be given permission to militarily intervene across borders to prevent mass killings. Known as “the responsibility to protect,” this principle endorsed in 2005 has been abused as much as it has been used to save lives, such in Libya in 2011. Yet such efforts represent humanity’s interest since World War II and the Holocaust to establish norms based on ideals such as human rights and democratic liberty.
The setback for the ICC should be seen in its larger context of the steady if fitful progress in persuading most of the world that certain ideals, such as justice, are indeed universal and can further the recent reduction in war violence. Many other efforts, such as treaties against weapons of mass destruction, are working well in setting higher norms. The world is also more tightly bound by economic concerns, which helps drive global rules to prevent violence.
The ICC was created in hopes of avoiding the kind of ad hoc courts set up to deal with mass violence, such as in the former Yugoslavia. Such a need still exists. A noble purpose like universal justice, once let loose, is difficult to end. At its creation, Kofi Annan, an African and at the time the UN secretary-general, described the ICC as a “giant step forward in the march towards universal human rights and the rule of law.” The withdrawal of few nations cannot stop that march.