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A Tour of the International Criminal Court and the Hague

Emerson Johnston
August 19, 2021

My Dialogue of Civilizations program has been chock-full with tours, practically two a week, but none have been as captivating as the tours we took in our final week in the International Criminal Court, The Hague, and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. As a future student of international law who would love nothing more than to practice law in any of these buildings one day, I could not have imagined a better end to my program. Here’s just a glimpse of what I learned: 

The Hague is a city and municipality in the Netherlands. The city hosts a population of over half a million (roughly the same population as Boston) and is the third-largest city in The Netherlands, after Amsterdam and Rotterdam in that order. The larger metropolitan area hosts a population of approximately 2.4 million and is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe. 

The city functions as both the administrative and royal capital of the country as well as its seat of government and the capital of the province of South Holland. It is also the world headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell and other Dutch companies. Though not the country’s constitutional capital (that being Amsterdam), The Hague is the seat of the national Cabinet, the States General, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State of the Netherlands. Moreover, King Willem-Alexander lives and works in the city and most foreign embassies are located there too. In the city, you will find over 200 international governmental bodies. 

The Hague is known as the “home of international law and arbitration”. The main judicial arm of the United Nations, The International Court of Justice (ICJ), is located in the city, as is the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Europol, and, of course, the International Criminal Court. 

The International Criminal Court is an intergovernmental organization and tribunal that is the only permanent body with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Its intended use is as a complement to the existing national judicial bodies of the United Nations member states and it, therefore, cannot exercise its jurisdiction unless the national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute the criminals themselves. Moreover, it lacks universal territorial jurisdiction and may only investigate and prosecute crimes committed within member states, crimes committed by nationals of member states, or crimes in situations referred to the Court by the United Nations Security Council.  

It began operations on July 1st, 2002 upon the passage of the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute is a multilateral treaty that serves as the court’s foundational and governing document. The Statute established four aforementioned “core” international crimes. Those crimes “shall not be subject to any statute of limitations”. States that become parties to the Rome Statute become members of the ICC, serving on the Assembly of States Parties, which administers the court. As of last year, there are 123 ICC member states, with 42 states, including the United States, having neither signed nor become parties to the Statute. 

The building has four principal organs: the Presidency, the Judicial Divisions, the Office of the Prosecutor, and the Registry. The President is the most senior judge and is chosen by their peers in the Judicial Division, which hears cases before the Court. The Office of the Prosecutor is led by the Prosecutor who investigates crimes and initiates criminal proceedings before the Judicial Division. The Office of the Prosecutor has opened twelve official investigations and is currently conducting nine preliminary examinations. The Registry, headed by the Registrar, is charged with managing all the administrative functions of the ICC, including the headquarters, detention unit, and public defense office. The ICC has faced a number of criticisms from states and society, including objections about its jurisdiction, accusations of bias, questioning of the fairness of its case-selection and trial procedures, as well as doubts about its effectiveness.

Thus far, 45 individuals have been indicted in the ICC, including Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, former President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi, President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

I found it very unfortunate that the U.S. did not sign the Rome Statute if only because that means no American lawyer can ever practice at the ICC. As a student who will go on to study international law, that is a huge disappointment 🙁

We also got the chance to visit the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), a far less known but equally important international body. 

For context, in the early 1990s, the United Nations Security Council established two criminal courts whose purpose was to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The first of these courts was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established in 1993 to investigate crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars, and the second court was the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was established the following year to address crimes committed during the Rwandan genocide. Both the ICTY and the ICTR were meant to be temporary institutions that would conclude after their mandate to investigate crimes and prosecute individuals was completed. Although both tribunals have completed substantially all of their mandates, there are residual functions that will not be accomplished for many more years which are now being handled by the IRMCT. For example, future trials may be held once remaining ICTR fugitives are captured, convicted persons may still petition for early release, protective orders for witnesses may need to be modified, and the archives that contain confidential documents need to be safeguarded. In order to oversee the residual functions of the ICTY and ICTR in an efficient manner, the Security Council passed Resolution 1966 on 22 December 2010, which created what is now known as the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.

For me, this tour was fascinating because I was previously unaware that this mechanism existed, and learning the reasons for why it does has proven invaluable to my knowledge of international law and human rights.