Despite COVID-19, Five Milestones for International Justice

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no community unscathed. In some countries, health workers face personal protective equipment shortages; in others, governments actively exploit the pandemic to restrict rights to freedom of speech or assembly and suppress access to information about COVID-19. But even in this challenging context, the pursuit of justice for some of the most heinous atrocities of the last century across the globe has not stopped. 

Today is International Justice Day, marking the twenty-second anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC exists as a last resort to hold powerful actors accountable for the most serious human rights abuses. It is a beacon of hope against impunity when domestic legal systems are unwilling or unable to hold leaders accountable for grave crimes. Since the ICC’s establishment in 2002, human rights advocates, legal practitioners, victims of atrocities, faith-based organizations, and other constituencies have often looked to the Court to complement and reinforce their work for justice, prospects for lasting peace, and respect for the dignity of all. 

As Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) draws attention to the profound threats facing health workers and communities worldwide because of the pandemic, these grave human rights issues still remain top of mind. Accountability is needed now more than ever for sexual violence in conflict and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, and Syria. Here are five international justice issues you should pay attention to as we acknowledge International Criminal Justice Day. #JusticeMatters

Rwanda: The trial of genocidaire Félicien Kabuga  

In May 2020, after 25 years on the run, one of the most wanted fugitives from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide – Félicien  Kabunga – was arrested in France. His alleged crimes include financing Hutu extremists who raped, pillaged, burned homes and churches, and massacred some 800,000 people. As founder and lead funder of the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, Kabuga is also accused of managing a propaganda machine that instructed people to go out and kill members of Rwanda’s minority Tutsi.

Holding Kabunga to account is something PHR has worked towards for decades. We contributed to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) investigations by organizing forensic scientists to exhume and examine a large mass grave. A shocking 70 percent of the bodies belonged to women and children. In 1997, Kabunga was charged with crimes against humanity and genocide by the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania. Kabunga’s arrest has reignited hope and we look forward to the day when justice will be served for the victims of his crimes.

Myanmar: The Gambia v. Myanmar genocide case

In August 2017, security forces and civilians in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state led brutal attacks against Rohingya women, men, and children. PHR has documented the scale and scope of the violence perpetrated, and we have evidence that Myanmar’s government and civilians launched a campaign of widespread and systematic violence with the support of the military and security forces. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has said that the government’s violent operations against the Rohingya bear “the hallmarks of a genocide.”

More than two years after the violence, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) supported The Gambia’s request that the Myanmar government take all necessary actions to protect the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority from the threats of genocide. This ICJ decision on the request for provisional measures, issued in January 2020, marks an important milestone toward accountability for Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya and was the court’s first official response to The Gambia’s official complaint of Myanmar’s violations of the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention

As we approach the third anniversary on August 25 of these atrocities, PHR reiterates its support for parallel legal proceedings underway that give some promise to victims of future justice and accountability. These proceedings include the ICC’s investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity of the deportation of Rohingya civilians across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Afghanistan: ICC Investigation into War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

In March 2020, the ICC cleared the way for an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan since 2003, when the country became party to the Rome Statute. The ruling authorized an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, including abuses committed by the U.S. armed forces and intelligence personnel, the Taliban, Afghan National Security Forces, and other combatants in the country.

The ICC probe will also investigate potential war crimes, such as torture or inhuman treatment conducted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan, as well as in CIA black sites in Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.

This ruling is potentially a major turning point for the pursuit of truth, justice, and accountability at the international level. Yet, the United States is taking punitive measures against ICC investigators and prosecutors as well as other groups supporting the Court’s work. PHR urges the administration to be a powerful voice for justice and accountability for mass atrocities and reverse the steps it has announced, and we urge members of Congress to clearly and publicly oppose this policy. No one is above the law, regardless of how powerful or how influential.

Syria: Universal jurisdiction cases examine state-sponsored torture

Since 2011, the Syrian government has systematically tortured civilians, among them health professionals who frequently have been in the position of capturing the evidence of brutal crimes committed by the government. Nine years later, despite the widespread sense of impunity enjoyed by the Syrian regime with the backing of its Russian and Iranian allies, Syrian regime officials are being prosecuted in national courts. In April 2020, a landmark trial on state torture began in Koblenz, Germany against Anwar R. and Eyad A., an alleged former intelligence officer and a lower-ranking subordinate at Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Because Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the ICC is not authorized to investigate crimes in Syria without a referral by the UN Security Council. Yet, Germany’s laws allow for universal jurisdiction for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Due to the large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees in Germany, previously unavailable victims, witnesses, material evidence, and even some suspects are now within the reach of the judicial authorities there.

As evidence builds for these crimes, Germany and other European states must continue to actively explore all avenues available for criminal accountability for those accused of the gravest crimes and for the continued attacks on Syria’s civilian population.

Sudan: Trial of Ali Kushayb, Janjaweed commander in Darfur

Last month, the ICC announced that Darfur militia leader Ali Kushayb was being held in its detention center on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity after surrendering in the Central African Republic. Kushayb is the first Sudanese suspect taken into ICC custody in The Hague. The Court issued an arrest warrant for him in 2007, accusing him of persecution, murder, and rape in the western Sudanese region of Darfur between 2003 and 2004.

The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2002. Kushayb’s transfer – almost 20 years after his alleged crimes – was long overdue and represents an important milestone. But we must not forget the five other arrest warrants related to Darfur that are still outstanding, including that of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.

In a landscape fraught with political and procedural obstacles, avenues to justice must be pursued at every opportunity, from local efforts towards truth-telling to international criminal justice proceedings. In these five cases, and despite the COVID-19 crisis, the pursuit of justice has not stopped. PHR and human rights advocates globally are working to build evidence for cases so that victims and survivors can finally obtain their day in court and justice can be served.

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