UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on Iraq to ratify the Rome Statute, or to allow the International Criminal Court (ICC) to exert jurisdiction over the situation in Iraq, following the release of a UN report that detailed horrific crimes within its territory. The report detailed “staggering” human rights violations committed by the self-declared Islamic State (IS), also called ISIS or ISIL, and related groups, as well as crimes committed by the Iraqi government in its attempt to quell IS.
The High Commissioner’s advice should resonate with those in the Iraqi government who seek accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC was established for situations like this – when domestic judiciaries are unwilling or unable to properly address crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide within their territories. Authorizing the ICC to exert its jurisdiction over the situation in Iraq would send a strong signal that the international community prioritizes justice for heinous attacks on civilians, no matter who the perpetrator is.
However, ratifying the Rome Statute, or authorizing the ICC to exert its jurisdiction, may not be an easy task for the Iraqi government. In addition to crimes committed by IS, state actions, such as those detailed in the UN report, would come under investigation and perpetrators may face prosecution. Perhaps more disturbingly, the United States may seek to keep the ICC out of Iraq to avoid international scrutiny and potential prosecution of future U.S. military actions in the country. The U.S. government has warmed its relationship with the ICC over the past dozen years, assisting with cases to the extent possible under current U.S. law, but the United States may still seek to keep the court clear of its military and other officials.
The Iraqi government should immediately accept the ICC’s jurisdiction as it considers ratifying the Rome Statute, and the United States should become a full partner in accountability for international crimes in Iraq. U.S. hesitancy about the court should be replaced by full support for accountability mechanisms at all levels – local and international – to address the truly shocking crimes in Iraq. The United States can demonstrate its leadership in promoting justice for some of the world’s worst crimes by joining High Commissioner Zeid in calling on Iraq to accept the court’s jurisdiction.