x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Arabs urged to support war crimes tribunal

International Criminal Court supporters say the prosecution of the Sudanese president for atrocities makes Muslim nations hesitate.

NEW YORK // Ahead of a review conference on the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, campaigners are calling on more Arab governments to stand up for human rights by throwing their weight behind the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Supporters of the ICC complain that only three members of the 22-nation Arab League - Jordan, Djibouti and Comoros - have ratified the treaty underpinning the court, the Rome Statute, representing the lowest membership rate of any region. They describe Arab officials as torn between supporting a court that could be empowered to try Israelis for war crimes in Gaza, but is also prosecuting a sitting Arab head of state, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, for atrocities.

"The prosecution of al Bashir caused a lot of hesitance among Arab states - especially as this arrest warrant was issued just after the Israeli invasion of Gaza," said Abeer al Khraisha, the Amman-based co-ordinator for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which advocates for the court. "Why was the ICC able to act so quickly and decisively against Sudan and not against what happened in Gaza? Some officials and members of civil society point to these double-standards within the ICC and question its credibility."

The ICC began working in 2002 to prosecute the most serious atrocities of global concern - genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes - when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to launch their own probes. It has begun prosecutions against Thomas Lubanga, an alleged recruiter of child soldiers, and Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, in cases across the Congo, Uganda, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Investigators are also laying the groundwork for cases in such places as Chad, Kenya, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

While 111 nations are parties to the ICC, the court's scope is limited because key countries such as the United States, Russia, China and Israel, have not joined. The court can only pursue crimes committed by a national of a member state or on its territory, unless given jurisdiction by the UN Security Council. ICC judges issued a warrant against Mr al Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes in March last year after the UN's 15-nation council authorised a probe into atrocities committed in Sudan's western province of Darfur.

An attempt to empower the ICC to prosecute Israelis for alleged war crimes committed during the 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza is expected to fail, because Israel's long-standing protector, the US, would likely veto any referral by the Security Council. "When you contact Arab officials, they do believe in international justice and the ICC in principle, it's just this double-standard issue," said Ms al Khraisha. "The inability of the ICC to take action, this is why they are cautious."

Fears that the court is a western political tool ranks among other concerns for Arab leaders, who highlight the difficulty of rewriting constitutions to remove the immunity for heads of state that is a necessary precursor to ICC ratification. Some critics say they will not join the court unless the US and Israel become members. Others await the outcome of a review conference in Uganda from May 31 to June 11 at which delegates will debate the ICC mechanism for a fourth crime: aggression.

In the run-up to the conference, 300 organisations across the region are campaigning for governments to join the ICC, focusing on the nine Arab countries that signed the Rome Statute but have not ratified: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Syria, the UAE and Yemen. Ms al Khraisha described Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt as being "open to dialogue" on the issue and showing "some readiness" to becoming parties to the ICC, saying the outcome of the Kampala review conference could yield stronger Arab involvement in the court.

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al Hussein, Jordan's ambassador to the US, said Arab countries played a "very influential role" in the formation of the court in the 1990s, despite the fact that very few had proceeded to join the institution. "We believe in international justice and we believe in institutions of this nature plus we find that it is in the interest of small states to have the added protection of a court of this sort," he said.

"Whatever concerns other countries have, hopefully in time they will see fit to join the court. There is a sense of inevitability about universal membership. It may take 20, 30 or 40 years but we believe that, at one stage, all states will be party to the statute." jreinl@thenational.ae