International Justice and The Principle of Complementarity

The last week of lectures and activities were in all in one way or another related to justice, reconciliation and restoration. Approaching these subjects from so many different angles naturally made me reflect on my own experience that I had with the ICC last fall.The world of international justice was in all honesty a complete mystery for me upon starting my internship with the Coalition for the ICC (CICC) in their Hague secretariat. I’d had a few classes in international politics and global governance where the institution had been brought up but it was mostly spoken about in broad terms. The very usual critique of it as being ineffective and “a European court for African leaders” was not uncommon throughout those class discussions. The idea of an institution with the mission of furthering something like accountability for state leaders in an anarchical international reality indeed seemed like an enterprise with more challenges than opportunities going for it.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is as most of you already know the first permanent international judicial body with the capacity of trying individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes guided by the crucial principle of complementarity. Individuals can thus only be tried when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. By working with the CICC I got the opportunity to jump head first into studying the way ICC’s civil society representation is dealing with all of the problematique related to the operation of the court. The CICC includes 2,500 civil society organizations in 150 different countries working in partnership to strengthen international cooperation with the ICC; ensure that the Court is fair, effective and independent; make justice both visible and universal; and advance stronger national laws that deliver justice to victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The main actors in the ensuring the continuous function of the Court is of course the staff, such as the judges, prosecutors and attorneys, but equally importantly – and perhaps more fundamentally, the state actors. The state actors and their diplomatic representations in The Hague are providing the funding for the Court on a voluntary basis. The agreements about who should pay what, when, is constantly discussed and the Court has dealt with an actual decrease in funding the past few years despite an increasing case load and calls for investigations. A lot of the critique I see regarding the effectiveness and operation of the Court is directly related to the funds available and how it shapes the programs and outreach that the Court staff can engage in.

Civil society is, together with a surprisingly small number of states and the Court staff, the main drivers in ensuring sufficient funding for the Court and an absolutely crucial link between state actors, the Court and communities around the world. I was amazed in seeing how much of the work that is being carried out and advocated for by the Court and civil society was not about putting people on trial, but instead concerned with the crucial component of complementarity. There is a great deal of awareness amongst all actors, even including the states, that complementarity is the key to any way of bringing about international justice with legal means. I think that I by working with the ICC realized how multifaceted this kind of approach has to be – and that the judicial aspect of international justice is only a small part of it.

Many trials in The Hague were causing reactions in societies hundred and hundred miles away, and the controversy regarding the imprisonment of leaders who in many people’s eyes are legitimate is never going to be unproblematic. The lectures we had last week made me thin even more critically about this and in fact, commit even more to the idea of complementarity. I actually think, despite the in most cases very impressive work of the Court in community outreach and national capacity building, that the ICC and civil society must be more sensitive to the cultural and political context in which they are getting involved in. A trial in The Hague might be able to bring forward an important set of narratives and some sort of justice to certain groups, but it can never fully heal societies and bring about reconciliation at the national level.

I will continue to believe that the ICC serves a purpose in bringing about the end of impunity through a higher level of accountability in our, frankly speaking chaotic world order, but it can, and should never be resorted to as the only solution. National capacity building, context based reconciliation efforts and trauma healing should be a part of the dialogue to a much greater extent than what we usually talk about in IR circles today.