The Many Troubles of the ICC

The International Criminal Court's Kafkaesque bureaucracy and obstructive defendants are hindering justice. 

When the International Criminal Court was first formed in 2002, many feared that it would become too powerful. It turns out that the problem with the ICC is not that it is too powerful, but that it is too weak.

One reason the U.S. government was reluctant to sign the treaty establishing the court was that it feared that American soldiers would be tried by the court for what some on the left view as war crimes. The Israelis had similar concerns. Others feared a court that could use the armed forces of one nation to go after criminals in another, take them to be tried in a third, and imprison any convicted in still another, as if there were a world government. There also was fear that these alien tribunals would adopt alien or hybrid procedures to railroad the defendants in service of some new mega-criminal law.

In reality, its own bureaucracy has kept the ICC from becoming anything approaching tyrannical—let alone effective. Procedural and substantive deficiencies have marred the work of the court, leading to lengthy delays and frustration. In ten years of existence, the ICC has opened formal investigations into 28 of the most serious atrocities and has conducted cases against a number of the alleged perpetrators. Yet, as John Bellinger recently noted in the Washington Post, it has completed just one, raising concerns regarding the effectiveness of the court.

Given the complex and often political nature of international trials, some delay is to be expected. But the glacial proceedings that are now commonplace pose three serious problems. The first concern is a practical one: long trials are expensive, and they consume resources with such veracity that international tribunals are often unable to carry a sizable caseload or deal swiftly with new crises. The second concern verges on the philosophical. Criminal courts across the globe recognize the basic right of accused persons to trial with undue delay; however, international tribunals’ demonstrated inability to assure this right threatens both their functionality and their perceived legitimacy worldwide. The third concern is utilitarian: that the international tribunals’ inefficiency may ultimately undermine whatever deterrent effect they have on the world’s most malevolent wrongdoers.

Justice delayed is indeed justice denied, not just to the accused and their past victims, but also to the present and future victims of wrongdoers who might be deterred by swifter justice. But the delays that have plagued the ICC and companion courts are not inevitable. The concerns that have been raised can be substantially addressed by a number of relatively modest changes in procedure and in the courts’ approach to obstructive defendants.

Complicated Procedures

A June 2011 report by the War Crimes Research Office at American University’s Washington College of Law catalogued a plethora of procedural issues facing the ICC, painting a picture of a Court in real disarray. The delays start even before trial. Judges in pretrial chambers in international proceedings sometimes take months to respond to applications for warrants of arrest or issue summonses. Leaving suspected war criminals at large while the court dithers over such applications not only disillusions those who look to international courts to mete out justice, but also gives alleged criminals the chance to escape their grasp.

This delay, however, is among the easiest to cure. As the report notes, the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the Special Court for Sierra Leone have substantially streamlined their processes, permitting the approval of indictments and the issuance of arrest warrants on short notice, even in cases against high-profile offenders. Permitting single judges to approve indictments, or decide when the issuance of a warrant is appropriate (rather than panels), and simply setting (and enforcing) deadlines for judges to make them issue warrants more quickly can make a significant difference.

A more difficult source of delay is too few judges. The obvious solution to this problem is the appointment of additional judges, but this solution can be expensive. (Indeed, as the Financial Times recently noted, ICC judges receive an annual tax-free salary of €180,000 [more than $230,000]). Thus, some courts elect “ad litem judges” – judges assigned to a particular case for its duration—from the regions involved in pending proceedings. This solution not only can reduce delays that otherwise arise from the need for interpretation—it can also shore up a tribunal’s perceived legitimacy, as the presence of local jurists can quiet the local public’s fears of bias and foreign interference.

Yet, even when the pool of judges may be sufficient, requirements for collegial decision-making by “panels” for the most uncontroversial administrative portions of a proceeding can so drain the pool that scheduling more than a handful of cases at a time is a pipedream. For this problem, the reform is obvious—permit more single-judge decisions—but it comes at a cost in legitimacy and, some would say, accuracy. This cost can be reduced by allowing interlocutory appeals (appeals before a final judgment) of errant single-judge decisions, but this cure may be also be worse than the disease because of the delay it entails.