In the wake of three States withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, the top United Nations human rights official has underlined that there is no substitute for the Court and called on the international community to “place [their] collective shoulder behind [the] institution.”
“Do not betray the victims, nor your own people. Stand by the Rome Statute and the Court,” underscored the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his keynote address at the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“In a world that seems increasingly adrift, the turmoil yet to face humanity may be far greater than any challenge we have yet experienced […], we can safeguard our societies by standing firm on the principles of justice which anchor this institution,” he added.
The Assembly of States Parties (also called the Assembly) is the ICC’s management oversight and legislative body and is composed of representatives of the States that have ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute.
In his speech, the High Commissioner said that the Assembly is meeting in the “shadow” of the withdrawals by three States.
South Africa, Burundi and Gambia have notified the UN Secretary-General, who is the depository of the Rome Statute of the ICC, of their intent withdraw from the Court. Withdrawals come into effect one year after official notification.
Noting the withdrawals, Mr. Zeid said “we are not convinced their position is based entirely on principle. Quite the opposite: it appears to aim more at protecting their leaders from prosecution.”
“If the State Parties, who apparently have been masquerading in recent years as countries devoted to criminal accountability, want to leave, then they should leave,” he stressed, adding:
“By withdrawing from the Rome Statute, leaders may shield themselves with immunities – but it will be at the cost of depriving their people of the protection of a unique and essential institution.”
Stand firm on Article 27
Urging the State Parties attending the Assembly to “stand firm” on Article 27 relating to “Irrelevance of official capacity,” the top UN human rights official underscored that “No change should be undertaken under threat of withdrawal, nor should any future amendment touch on the critical articles of the Statute. Specifically, the principle of the irrelevance of official capacity is prime, is existential for the Court.”
According to Article 27, the Rome Statute shall apply equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity, including as a Head of State or Government. And that official capacity shall, in no case, exempt a person from criminal responsibility, nor shall it constitute a ground for reduction of sentence.
It also notes that immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person.
Current challenges before the ICC not the first and will not be the last
Recalling that African countries have been the “backbone” of ICC and that their leadership was exemplary, particularly during the initial days of the Court, he said that he was pleased that many countries from the continent, including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Malawi, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Sierra Leone have signalled they will not leave.
The High Commissioner further noted that current challenges confronting the Court are not “the first stern test” it has faced and neither “they will not be the last,” he called on all Start Parties to resist such challenges and face them with resolve and strength.
“I urge you to summon your determination, place our collective shoulder behind this institution, and when the tensions become extreme, you will find all of us in the human rights community alongside you and this Court, our Court,” he concluded.