x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

ICC benefits from change at top

The International Criminal Court is changing chief prosecutors. The new one has a chance to undo some of the problems left by the old one.

Next summer Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina will complete his nine-year term as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), He leaves behind an unenviable record: no cases completed so far, too much staff turnover, too many press releases, too many controversies.

For all its problems, the ICC's goal - international justice in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression - is truly stirring. We hope Mr Moreno-Ocampo's successor, named this week, will be able to move towards that goal more convincingly.

Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, the ICC's deputy prosecutor since 2004, certainly has the opportunity. As an African, a Muslim and the wife of a Moroccan Arab, Ms Bensouda will be well-positioned to begin healing the rupture between the ICC and much of the African and Muslim worlds. But that rupture itself illustrates the ICC's biggest problem - that it is in practice more a political agency than a judicial one.

Ms Bensouda was chosen by consensus among the 120 "states-parties" to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. She was especially strongly backed by African states, many of which have been highly critical of the ICC because all of its 14 outstanding cases are against Africans. As the court is largely funded by EU countries, it is often dismissed - unfairly, we think - as a tool of neocolonialism.

In the Muslim world, Mr Moreno-Ocampo has been widely criticised for his reluctance to turn the court's attention to Israel, which is not among the states-parties. (Other nonmembers include the UAE, the US, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea.)

The Rome Statute provides a mechanism by which the prosecutor can open an investigation on his own. That Mr Moreno-Ocampo refrained from using this tool to investigate Israeli actions reflects the ICC's fundamental problem: the realities of international politics make it easier to go after discredited dictators than states with important friends.

True justice must be impartial and even-handed. In this world of competing national interests, the ICC's moral claim to over-arching jurisdiction runs aground on the shoals of political reality. That problem won't go away soon, but Ms Bensouda can advance the court's cause if she can provide efficient management, win some cases, and mend some fences.