IntLawGrrls welcomes Ghuna Bdiwi, who contributes the post below directly from the International Criminal Court (ICC) Assembly of States Parties (ASP) in The Hague.
Ghuna Bdiwi is a lawyer and a member of the UN Syrian Constitutional Committee as part of the experts and civil society group. She is a PhD candidate of international criminal law at Osgoode Hall Law School – York University. Ghuna is a delegate of the Canadian Partnership for International Justice to the 18th ICC ASP.
December seems to be a remarkable month for international justice. Two important milestones are taking place this month: the 71st Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the 18th ICC Assembly of States Parties. The former event is to be held on the 10th of December, to commemorate the fundamental principles that should apply to every human predicament. The UDHR affirms in its preamble some of the major principles that humans should not live without, providing that “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The latter event is held every year by State Parties to the ICC to convene and discuss matters related to the advancement of the international criminal justice system. This system is meant to sustain one of the important foundations of human dignity, that is to guarantee justice. The ICC, to a large extent, blossomed to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice, and to ensure that human rights violations do not occur with impunity. The establishment of the ICC was a direct response to prior human suffering resulting from wars and human-caused humanitarian disasters.
In 2019, the picture shows that a number of countries around the world are speaking out against evidence of corruption within authoritarian governments, while demanding democracy, freedom, equality and dignity. We witnessed mass demonstrations in Egypt, whereby Egyptians defied their government. Protests, demanding the government’s resignation, have filled the roads in Lebanon. In Iraq, mass protests have taken place to end government corruption, economic mishandling of economic resources, and other social cavities like poverty, unemployment, and lack of essential public services. In Hong Kong, protests are in response to citizens’ struggle for freedom of expression, rights of autonomy and self-determination. In Iran, national demonstrations have also ensued. Citizens simply want to get rid of authoritarian regimes.
Yet, this picture reminds me of the Syrian uprising that began on March 15, 2011. Many Syrian revolutionists were optimistic to establish the country they had envisioned – a democratic state that secures respect of their humanity, dignity, freedom and the rule of law. Contrary to the expectations of Syrian revolutionists, the response to their demands included grave human rights violations. The responses amounted the infliction of torture, imprisonment, murder, extensive destruction and appropriation of properties, as well as widespread, systematic and indiscriminate targeting of civilians, schools and hospitals. According to Articles (7) and (8) of the ICC Rome Statute, the conduct listed above constitutes heinous international crimes – namely, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In response to state wrongdoing, calls to address and halt human rights violations have been heard loudly from a variety of voices; citizens, the international community, individual states, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, practitioners, diplomats, scholars, and others. Despite the list of concerned voices, there have been limited responses. There is no doubt that the UDHR is a milestone document in the history of human rights, but, alone, it is not an adequate tool to respond to calls to protect innocent civilians and prevent the scourge of war.
The strongest response to human rights violations might be a military response, but it can cause severe repercussions. The case of Iraq illustrates this reality. In 2005, the US decided to militarily intervene, claiming its intervention would implement democracy and free the people of Iraq from Saddam Al-Hussein’s ruthless dictatorship, but the country remains in a state of unrest up to this moment. In contrast, the Rome Statute of the ICC was created to guarantee and enforce legal – rather than militaristic – justice.
In the Syrian context, sadly, the death toll has reached approximately 600,000 people, nearly six million people are displaced outside the country, and approximately 600,000 people are reportedly missing. Despite these harrowing statistics, human rights law has been unable to provide them with adequate responses. If Syria was a State Party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, many perpetrators would likely be imprisoned by now, or at least fleeing from the hands of justice.
I might sound very optimistic, but it sounds to me that when we call for criminal accountability, our calls send a message to perpetrators that we know what they have done, and that they deserve to be prosecuted and punished. We tell them that we will hold them accountable whenever the circumstances allow for it. Calling for criminal accountability has value in itself; value that is beyond the values we generate from calling for human rights violations to be addressed. For example, calls for criminal accountability might deter government figures or make them think carefully before violating citizens’ rights. Think about the range of states mentioned above, which are witnessing recent demonstrations and demanding that governments step down: none of these countries have ratified the Rome Statute. I argue that, if those countries were Parties to the Rome Statutes, government reactions to citizen’s demands would take on an entirely different form, which is enough of a reason to justify the importance of the ICC.
Of course, the ICC faces many critics related to its efficiency, selectivity and financial cost, but let’s not forget that it is still in its childhood. Let’s try to be optimistic that the ICC will be one day be able to fulfil its promise to guarantee lasting respect, enforce justice, and prevent impunity.
This blogpost and the author’s attendance to the 18th ICC ASP are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.