It’s been a rough year for the International Criminal Court. As a wave of countries reject the court’s legitimacy, the ICC is also struggling with its perennial inability to enforce the decisions it brings down: in this case, a court order to arrest Sudan’s president. Reuters explains:
International Criminal Court judges asked South Africa on Thursday to send representatives to a hearing next year to determine whether it had breached its obligation to arrest Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir in June.
The public hearing will further strain already frayed relations between the war crimes court and African leaders, many of whom accuse the mainly European-backed institution of singling out Africa for prosecution.
The decision of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to let Bashir depart after an African Union summit unleashed a storm of protest in June, prompting legal challenges against the government and leading indirectly to South Africa’s and later Gambia’s decision to withdraw from the court.
The court is now organizing a public hearing to shame South Africa for shirking its obligations, but the institution retains no meaningful leverage to compel a change in behavior.
The whole episode exposes the obvious credibility crisis of the ICC. The court is distrusted by weaker powers and disdained by stronger ones. It cannot pursue African warlords without incurring cries of “neo-colonialism,” but it dare not touch major powers. In its current form, the court cannot credibly claim to be either impartial or effective, and authoritarian leaders like Putin and Duterte have calculated that they can safely reject it without any lasting consequence.
The mission of the court is noble; the crimes it has documented are indeed horrific. But that does not change the fact that such institutions need to be embedded in a credible power structure, and granted meaningful enforcement mechanisms, if they ever intend to deliver the justice they demand. Otherwise, the world’s despots will continue to look with contempt at the toothless liberal institutions that denounce them—and the world will be made less safe for human rights, not more.