A day in the ICC: Never meet your Heroes
It’s almost impossible to enter the ICC without being marvelled and inspired by what the international community has come together to build, in the name of justice, even in the gloomy rain and cloud covering The Hague.
After waiting patiently through several layers of security, expectations are immediately tempered, as the impression one gets when entering the courtroom viewing gallery is of stepping into a shiny yet bland open-plan office. A place of paper shuffling and drudgery rather than a fortress and protector of human decency.
As Imposing as it is oppressive. The trial room, designed by George Orwell and decorated by nobody, with its rows of computer banks walled-in by glass and blank grey panels, could be a scene from minority report, but for the complete lack of any action. In between the prosecutor’s manor-of-fact exchanges with the witness and the judges requests for statements to be repeated, I kept hoping Tom Cruise would burst through one of the huge glass windows and demand ‘the truth’.
The viewing gallery that looks down on the court is arranged reminiscent of a theatre, making the complete lack of drama even more juxtaposed.
This is the reality of international justice, the high utopian ideals played out in futuristic dystopian surrounding at a pace so agonisingly slow it seems at times that not only may the future never actually arrive, time might actually be running backwards.
Even in the soundproof glass box overlooking the proceedings, the grinding, stuttering gears of justice can be heard in the plodding process and procedure of drawing out minutiae detail of events that happened years ago, from a witness whose memory appears only as good as the prosecutors prompts.
Whilst the actors on stage busy themselves with excruciating details of an event at a far off time and far off place, minds in the audience begin to wander, contemplating if they will live to see the verdict, or what purpose the eight robed figures sat in front of the judge, frantically tapping at computers serve, if any.
These thoughts at first appear trivial when observing the trial of men accused of horrendous crimes, amongst whom a former President, but they hint at a serious spanner in the gears. Increasingly the ICC is becoming an organisation, that despite all its expensive glass walls, is failing to convince people of its transparency, and is more and more seen, if you’ll pardon the expression, as criminally inefficient.
The overwhelming feeling after stepping out of the impressive, art deco ICC building, built on ideals and optimism, is one of disappointment. Disappointment with a system that has taken 12 years and one billion dollars to prosecute two Africans. An organisation that expensively employs people who’s role isn’t obvious to even seasoned visitors, and spends years to reach often unsatisfactory conclusions.
It’s said you should never meet your heroes. This is perhaps something to keep in mind when visiting the grand home of international justice, bright eyed and awe inspired, beware that you may leave thinking, “is it worth it”. For my part, the jury’s out.
Is the ICC still useful?
In the 12 years following the creation of the ICC, only two people were convicted for a total cost of $1-2 billion, estimations vary. Both convicts were African war-lords little known to the public. Since, two other people have been convicted, both from Africa as well. According to Forbes, the ICC only managed to carry out the first conviction, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo’s conviction, a war criminal of the Democratic Republic of Congo, by changing the most serious charges to accessory to crimes charged. His conviction remains very controversial to this day and begs the question of the usefulness of the ICC, particularly regarding the time and costs involved in those convictions.
These concerns can be reflected in the Gbagbo trial that started on 28 January 2016. The case against Laurent Gbagbo, former president of the Cote d’Ivoire, and Charles Blé Goudé, former member of Mr. Gbagbo’s government, opened in 2011 and has only this year reached the trial stage of the process.
The case is a controversial one as the ICC has yet to open an investigation against Alassane Ouattara now president of the Cote d’Ivoire. Indeed, “the republican Forces of Cote d’Ivoire (FRCI), military forces under the control of Alassane Ouattara, are suspected of having massacred 800 people of Mr. Gbagbo’s entourage on 27 and 29 March.
“The ICC should look to hear Mr. Ouattara regarding these massacres”, says Franck Boni, community manager of Ivoire Justice, a professional blog that reports on the case. He adds that the ICC “remains an instrument used politically to get rid of an adversary” and that “the Court itself in its composition and its aim is not impartial”.
Willy Bla, a supporter and activist for Mr. Gbagbo added that the financial interests of European nations regarding the Cote d’Ivoire are the main reason for the prosecution, as the Cote d’Ivoire is one of the biggest producers of coffee and cocoa.
Questions can still be raised regarding the actions of the Court, as five years after the crimes were committed in the Cote d’Ivoire there still has not been any “serious” investigation done regarding the known criminals that side with Mr. Ouattara, although their crimes are “well-known to everybody”.
The lawyer for one of the defendants also voiced these concerns, adding that if the ICC were to one day open an investigation into Mr. Ouassara it would be after the Gbagbo trial had ended, at least five years from now. At which point some of the involved parties might be deceased.
The defense is also asking for Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President, to be heard by the ICC, although they do not expect this to happen. This has led the defense to believe that this is more of a political procedure that a judicial one.
The lawyer also fears that at the rate at which the trial is going, history might repeat itself in that what happened with the trial regarding Kenya might happen again. The trial will have to end as witnesses will have passed away or won’t remember the events by the time they testify, and pieces of evidence might have disappeared.
Franck Boni insisted that the ICC’s “mission remains noble” in that it strives to “fight against impunity” by judging supposed mass crimes perpetrators.
However “noble” the ICC’s mission, the question needs asking: What purpose does the ICC still serve?
Representation in Africa
Currently the ICC has 10 ongoing investigations, 9 involve African Countries – 8 were requested by African states.
Since its establishment in 2002, the ICC has heard 22 cases and indicted 36 individuals, all from Africa.
Perceptions of the ICC are varied across Africa.
Some allegations center on the ICC being “a political tool used by [foreign] powers to remove whoever they want from power on the African continent”, said Burundi lawmaker Gabriel Ntisezerana. Back in April The ICC said it wished to investigate the outbreaks of violence and political crisis in the country.
Gambia is the third country to withdraw. “There are many Western countries, at least 30, that have committed heinous war crimes against independent sovereign states and their citizens since the creation of the ICC and not a single Western war criminal has been indicted,” said Gambia’s information minister Sheriff Bojang. South Africa has also pulled out.
124 states are parties to the Rome Statute, all of South America, nearly all of Europe, most of oceania. 33 African states ratified the Rome statute, which established the ICC focusing on 4 core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.
31 countries signed but did not ratify the statue.
“Russia and African countries are backing out of the treaty which represents a state of ill-being”, according to activist, Willy Bla, who also adds, “The ICC is a court of injustice.
Following this, Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed its ‘firm commitment” to cooperation with the ICC. Tunisia reaffirmed its commitment as “the only avenue for justice”. Nigeria, Botswana Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Ghana, Mali,Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Lesotho, Uganda, Kenya also offered support to the ICC.
Namibia said withdrawal remains an option, but a decision has not been taken.
The ICC’s existence is currently seen as a deterrent for anyone seeking to carry out war crimes and a place for impartiality and non-partisan trials, which may not be the case elsewhere. The ICC “can intervene only when the national judicial system is not moving, is not capable or has no real genuine will to prosecute the perpetrators crimes.” Said Fadi El Abdallah, spokesperson at ICC.
“Africa is over-represented. Of the 10 cases opened by the court, 9 have been based in the African continent.” Said Franck Boni, a national jurist of students organization in the Ivory Coast. “Does that mean that serious violations of human rights only take place in Africa, not so sure.”
Scheveningan detention centre
Twelve 10-sq mt furnished rooms – provided with a private toilet and lavatory, a small mirror, satellite flat-screen TV and radio – two recreational areas with a kitchen, a gas stove, a refrigerator and microwave. Language-study rooms and a library with a wide choice of newspapers.
A full equipped gym, including green plastic cradles, two baskets, a punching bag and goalposts. A playground in the yard where it is also possible to play football, basketball and tennis.
The lot is in a three-storey historic building, better known as Orange Hotel – as it was used by Nazis during II World War to keep the Dutch resistance fighters – located in Scheveningen, a seaside resort only 6 km away from The Hague.
Could it be a luxurious student dormitory for rich kids? No, it is the Detention Unit of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Here, those convicted or on trial for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – including politicians and generals from the former Yugoslavia and conflicted African countries – enjoy the “high protection level” status: yoga classes, top-flight medical care, language-study rooms, classes on pottery and painting, musical instruments, personal trainers, a €15 weekly stipend for phone calls and other purchases. As recounted by Julian Borger and other journalists, in the ‘half prison, half spa’ or The Hague Hilton, families can spend seven consecutive days with the detainees and conjugal visits are allowed to girlfriends, even prior to showing their passports.
On the other hand, for students in The Hague rent for furnished rooms is up to 400 euros per month. There are around 30,000 students living in The Hague. 5,000 are international students, applying each year, mostly for law-related courses.As many other cities in the Netherlands, also in The Hague looking for an accommodation can be an exhausting and demoralising process.
The average stay in the custody of The Tribunal is 2,520 days, or six years and 11 months, which officials say is due to the length of the trials. Among ‘famous’ detainees: Charles Taylor – former Liberian President recently convicted for war crimes during Sierra Leone civil war – and former Ivory Coast President, Laurent Gbagbo, still on trial for the crimes committed during 2002 elections. ‘I think the conditions of detention there are far better than in Ivory Coast’ told the Spoke Franck Boni, community manager of Ivoire Justice.
When asked by The Spoke about such cosy conditions for people who, presumably or not, have caused the killings of hundreds, even thousands, the ICC spokesperson Fadi Al Abdullah stated: “We have to offer the highest standards and be an example for the states as well to ameliorate the situation for their own prisons.”