International Criminal Court turns 10

Ten years ago the treaty that created the International Criminal Court came into force, creating the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.

But as the anniversary is marked Sunday, allegations of state-sponsored atrocities in Syria are piling up and the court stands powerless to intervene, while the first person it indicted, Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, is still at large and his brutal militia, the Lord's Resistance Army, continues its reign of terror.

The court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, came into force July 1, 2002. It says the Hague-based tribunal is "determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators" of atrocities.

Ad hoc tribunals set up to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in individual conflicts such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone have succeeded in putting on trial the most senior political and military leaders — from Radovan Karadzic to Charles Taylor. But the permanent ICC has so far started just three trials and convicted only one person, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.

Experts say give it time: The U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal also started off prosecuting minor suspects and took more than a decade to get its hands on the likes of Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic who are now standing trial in The Hague.

"It's a fledgling organization," said Prof. Michael Scharf, of Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. "The expectations for an organization like that historically have to be reasonable because they really don't hit their stride until the second 10 years or even third 10 years."

Even so, the first decade of the ICC suggests it is falling well short of its lofty goals:


The key measure for ending impunity is considered prosecuting those accused of the world's most heinous offenses — genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

So far, the International Criminal Court has convicted only one suspect — Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. He was found guilty in March of recruiting and using child soldiers and will be sentenced July 10.

The court has opened seven investigations and issued 20 arrest warrants for suspects ranging from Kony and the top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Prosecutors say that the very fact the likes of Al-Bashir and late-Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi have been indicted is a major step toward ending impunity for leaders who use violence against their own people.

But the court, like other international tribunals, has no police force and has to rely on member states to detain those it indicts. So far, just six people have been arrested and five remain in the court's detention cells in a Dutch jail.


The court has been fiercely criticized for so far only opening investigations in Africa. Its prosecutors have cases in Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Libya and Ivory Coast.

"That absolutely has to change in its next 10 years," Scharf said. "Because it's not going to be seen as an international court if it's only looking at one continent."

It has opened preliminary probes in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Honduras, Nigeria, Guinea and alleged attacks by North Korean forces on South Koreans.

Newly appointed chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, a lawyer from Gambia, has pledged to investigate grave crimes anywhere the court has jurisdiction.


The court is striving for universality of its treaty — meaning that all countries join the court. So far 121 countries have joined, more than many observers expected. While the likes of Guatemala and Cape Verde have joined recently, global superpowers — the United States, Russia and China — have still not signed up. That's problematic for the court because the U.S., Russia and China all wield Security Council vetoes.

If the court is to launch an investigation in a non-member state it can only do so if the Security Council orders it to. So far the Security Council has ordered probes in Sudan, for the Darfur crisis, and in Libya. But it has failed to order an investigation in Syria because Russia would block such a move.


The global financial crisis is taking a toll on the court, which has a staff of 700 drawn from some 90 countries.

The court's budget this year is €108.8 million ($135 million), but member states have resisted budget rises in the last two years.

"This is affecting its ability to carry out new investigations and prosecutions, and affects the rules of due process," the International Federation for Human Rights said in a commentary on the 10th anniversary.


Perhaps no single suspect sums up the challenges facing the court better than Kony, the Lord's Resistance Army leader. The first person indicted, in July 2005, he's still at large and still committing atrocities. Kony faces 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, sexual enslavement, using child soldiers and inhumane acts.

A recent United Nations report said the LRA abducted and recruited at least 591 children between July 2009 and February 2012.

Kony is known for his brutal tactics, like cutting the lips off women who sound the alarm that his forces are coming, and ordering abducted children to kill their parents or other relatives.