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Survivors of International Crimes Still Await Justice on 20th Anniversary of Rome Statute

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today that the promise of justice for international crimes remains elusive 20 years after the adoption of the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Rome Statute, which provides the most comprehensive legal articulation of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, gave rise to a permanent international criminal court to intervene where states are either “unwilling or unable” to do so themselves. In the two decades since the adoption of the Rome Statute, the ICC has been thwarted by politics, the court’s cumbersome structure, and resource constraints, which have made it difficult to deliver meaningful justice to the many hundreds of thousands of victims affected by unconscionable crimes.

“The creation of the Rome Statute 20 years ago today, constituted a unified and urgent effort by the international community to establish a mechanism that could hold perpetrators accountable for the most heinous international crimes,” said Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. “But the ICC faces monumental challenges and the victims and affected communities, who desperately relied on the court for recourse as a last resort, are still awaiting justice.”

Since its creation, which was supported by PHR among many other human rights organizations, the ICC, made up of 123 state parties to the Rome Statute, has carried out vital work with investigations into mass atrocities in at least 10 countries, with more requests pending, planned or forthcoming. But it has not been spared criticism.

Many of the ICC’s challenges are related to drawn-out investigations, charges of bias, gaps in witness protection and confidentiality, as well as a lack of cooperation from powerful international players, including the United States, which only supports investigations on an ad hoc basis, and which boycotted a United Nations Security Council meeting earlier this year to mark the anniversary.

Recently, the ICC came under severe scrutiny for its appeal decision to overturn a judgment against former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Jean-Pierre Bemba, for atrocities committed in Central African Republic (CAR). His conviction in 2016 – the first judgment at the ICC to result in a guilty verdict for sexual violence allegations – had set an important milestone for sexual violence cases, internationally. In a 3-2 decision by appeals judges, the acquittal of Bemba, who has since been named a presidential candidate for upcoming DRC elections, revealed an example of where, despite due process, the Court faced criticism for its ultimate ruling, demonstrating the deep fissures within the system.

PHR was among those who criticized the Court’s decision, but despite flaws and shortcomings, PHR still believes the court’s mandate plays a crucial role in international justice, and has lamented the failure of the United Nations Security Council to make essential referrals of international crimes to the ICC. In situations such as the grave crises in Syria and Myanmar where PHR has documented egregious violations of international law and where states were unwilling and likely unable to prosecute the crimes, vetoes or fear of veto by Council members, including Russia and China, have prevented the UN body from carrying out its functions with respect to the ICC. PHR urges more robust action in ensuring that these international crimes are brought before the ICC, without delay.

Former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and PHR board member, Richard J. Goldstone, said: “If there was no International Criminal Court, all people who believe in justice for victims and who do not accept granting impunity for war criminals, would be working to establish such a court."
“We should rejoice that there is such a court, with all of its problems and imperfections. We should be working harder to make it more efficient and more universally supported,” he added.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted on July 17, 1998 and entered into force on July 1, 2002. The Court can prosecute individuals, but not states or organizations, for crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.