When the International Criminal Court was officially constituted in 2002 it transformed (in theory) for all time the way in which perpetrators of war and atrocity crimes would be regarded by world order. It ended impunity and provided a systematic manner of ensuring accountability. Even if a few indictments have led to imprisonment, and even if the ad hoc tribunals (including that for Sierra Leone) have accomplished few salutary incarcerations, the mere existence of the ICC has significantly curtailed the prospect of impunity. Genocidal regimes (such as Syria) have at least been put on notice.
The ICC’s presence allows victims of atrocity crimes to obtain implicit acknowledgement of their suffering. Likewise, if Truth and Reconciliation commissions are well run (more than fifty have met or been constituted) and if their proceedings are open, they too can offer a pronounced capability to acknowledge the sufferings of putative victims. Both the ICC and commissions can, in the best of circumstances, expose the nature of atrocities and the reach of ethnic cleansing and genocide for the benefit of those harmed. Both the ICC and Truth commissions are by design preventive mechanisms capable in good hands of strengthening the possibility of long-term peace rather than conflict.
The existence of the ICC ideally should halt fabricated denials of on-going crimes against humanity. The Yugoslav special tribunal heard innumerable witnesses to the proliferation of atrocity crimes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. The special Rwanda tribunal in Arusha did the same, eradicating any refusals to acknowledge the extent of genocidal acts there. In both cases, and in Sierra Leone, the piling up of details of complicity and atrocity demonstrated that ethnic cleansing and worse definitely occurred.
The ICC now has the opportunity and the challenge of strengthening and deepening international law through its identification of atrocity crimes and its prosecution of war criminals, up to and including heads of state such as Bashar al-Assad. The Rome Statute effectively eased prosecutorial limits by refusing solely to link a war crime to armed conflict. Widespread and systematic attacks on civilians are prosecutable. Severe deprivation of physical liberty is criminal, too, as are abusive gender-based crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, and forced prostitution. The Rome Statute has specifically declared a host of gender offences, even forced pregnancy, crimes against humanity.
Admittedly, the Rome Statute, the ICC, the special tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Timor Leste have not as yet eliminated or reduced atrocity crimes globally. The continuation of the many-sided civil war in Syria indicates that dictators prey upon their own peoples despite the (remote to them) possibility of retribution. President Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan remains in office despite an ICC indictment and relentlessly attacks his own people in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. The prosecution of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto of Kenya proceeds too slowly to have any inhibitory effect. And harsh dictators such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe blithely do what they want, inflicting hardship on their citizens. No one has yet been brought to account for the ongoing genocide in the Central African Republic. Only in tightly-run Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a large peace enforcement action is ongoing, has the ICC demonstrated an ability to punish, if not necessarily to prevent.
A proper remembrance of the horrors of Rwanda in 1994 would be the redoubling of efforts to curb dictatorial excesses and war crime activity through salutary prosecutions. They should include at a minimum leaders and key war crimes perpetrators in contemporary Syria, the Sudan, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Bahrain, and the Yemen. The successful prosecution of even one or two of such heads of state would indeed chasten other would be tyrants and thus begin to reduce the impunity attached today to most examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide.