Global justice is in no hurry

opinion September 22, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

A US official’s attack underscores how regressive politics burdens the already sluggish International Criminal Court

The White House has stepped up attacks on the International Criminal Court, alleging corruption, inefficiency, partiality and mismanagement. The complaints are debatable and the motives behind them are unclear. The Donald Trump administration certainly moves in mysterious ways and every one of its actions has to come under close scrutiny. 

The man lambasting the International Court on President Trump’s behalf is his national security adviser, the arch-hawk John Bolton. Bolton was George W Bush’s under-secretary of state in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ever since has strenuously advocated heavy demonstrations overseas of American military force. 

International reaction to Bolton’s outburst about the International Court has not been favourable, with commentators wondering why, despite the court’s widely acknowledged structural shortcomings, the US official is being so vitriolic – and why now. 

One obvious line of speculation as to the timing is that Bolton’s assault coincided with a statement by Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that he intended to investigate atrocities committed in Afghanistan during the US-led invasion immediately after 9/11. Bush, as then-commander in chief, has been accused of war crimes stemming from the Afghan and Iraqi operations. It’s understood that Bensouda has in mind primarily atrocities blamed on the Taleban and Afghan security forces, not US military personnel. But Bolton might have been reacting to the slightest suggestion that American troops too committed wrong. 

More than 120 sovereign states support the Court and many of them could conceivably align against the US if its leaders or citizens were formally charged – a severe diplomatic blow for Washington. 

There have long been doubts about the Court’s ability to make a difference in terms of global justice, and Bolton was capitalising on this. In return for total expenditures to date of between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, the Court has tried just five individuals and convicted three. Court officials admit some defects and missteps but, in its defence, cite the rise of nationalist and populist governments that are naturally hostile towards supranational justice.

Critics point our that Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted on a charge of genocide over a decade ago and an arrest warrant was issued, and he still travels freely abroad, including to Court-signatory states. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto faced charges related to an eruption of election-related ethnic violence in 2007 but have also evaded prosecution. 

One New York Times commentator chastising Bolton surmised that assailing the Court could have an unintended benefit – by rallying countries previously critical of the Court to its defence out of fear of or dismay with the US. American belligerence, went the reasoning, could diminish concerns about the Court’s shortcomings. 

“Nobody is afraid of the ICC, not even its members,” the writer said. “But many think it’s Bolton’s and Trump’s America that is outright dangerous.

“To imagine that this court can be a threat to America, the superpower, is farcical,” the writer continued. “And to treat it as an enemy, as Bolton is doing, may backfire: Kicking it while it’s down only gives it some of the stature it lacks.”

The article’s writer and Bolton have something in common, apparently: They have little respect for the Court. 

The disdain they share with so many others represents bad news for world