A July 8th New York Times headline proclaims, “Arab Uprisings Point Up Flaw in Global Court.” It erroneously suggests that the people operating the International Criminal Court are stupid or cowardly or that the diplomats who in 1998 drafted the ICC’s governing treaty, the ICC’s Rome Statute, were similarly stupid or cowardly.
The article starts with the facts that the ICC has not initiated an investigation of human rights abuses in Yemen and Syria. That is lamentable, but it is not due to a flaw in the operations of the ICC or the Rome Statute.
It is due instead to the limitations on the Court’s jurisdiction that were intentionally established in the drafting of the Rome Statute because of opposition of states like the U.S. that did not want the Court commencing investigations or criminal prosecutions against their citizens if the state did not ratify that Statute.
That Statute’s Article 12 provides, in part, that the Court has jurisdiction if certain crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes) are committed on the territory of a state that is a party to the Rome Statute or by nationals of such a state. Neither Yemen nor Syria is such a party, as is true for all other states in the Mideast except Jordan. Thus, the Court does not have jurisdiction of such an investigation or prosecution under Article 12.
The Rome Statute’s Article 13(b) also provides jurisdiction for the Court if the U.N. Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression), refers a situation of suspected crimes of that nature to the ICC even if the state where the conduct occurred or whose nationals are involved had not ratified the Rome Statute. In fact, as the New York Times article points out, the Security Council has twice done so: Sudan (Darfur) and Libya.
However, as most people know, the U.N. Charter that was drafted in 1945 at the end of World War II grants in Article 27(3) a veto on any action by the Council to each of its five permanent members: the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [now Russia] and the Republic of China. The failure of the ICC to undertake any investigation of the Yemen situation is due to a threatened veto by the U.S. of such a referral.
With respect to Syria, the U.S. in June 2011 reportedly was seeking Russian and Chinese support for a Council referral of the situation to the Court, but that was obviously unsuccessful because no such proposal was actually advanced in the Council. In November 2011 four U.S. Senators (Dick Durbin, Benjamin Cardin, Robert Menendez and Barbara Boxer) sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (Susan Rice) asking for such a Security Council referral. They said, “The people of Syria deserve to know that the people of the United States understand their plight, stand behind them, and will work to bring justice to the country.” Security Council referral of Syria to the ICC also has been endorsed by the New York Times.
The next month (December 2011) the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Security Council to make such a referral. But nothing happened, again because of threatened vetoes by Russia and China.
If there is any “flaw” in this structure with respect to Yemen and Syria it is the veto right of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Although many, if not most, of the U.N. members that are not permanent Council members dislike the superior status and veto rights of the permanent Council members and voice various suggestions for reform of the Security Council, expert observers of the U.N. do not think that is at all likely in the near future.
In the meantime, 121 of the 192 U.N. members are now parties to the Rome Statute, and the Court’s governing body (its Assembly of States Parties) is working towards its goal of universal ratification of the Rome Statute. If and when that happened, the Court could initiate investigations and prosecutions with respect to all such parties without Security Council action.
Over the last 60-plus years the peoples of the world through their nation-state governments have been struggling to climb out of the pits of depravity of World War II by creating or codifying international norms or human rights and by constructing mechanisms to protect individuals that are beyond the control of their own national governments while such governments still have sovereignty over most aspects of their lives. The creation and operation of the International Criminal Court and other so-called ad hoc international criminal tribunals are important pieces of this effort. This is an inherently difficult process, and many compromises are necessary in order to make any progress. But the story is not finished. Further development, I am confident, will occur.