Flurry of activity as ICC tackles current wars

AP News
Posted: Apr 07, 2011 6:18 AM
Flurry of activity as ICC tackles current wars

Days after hundreds were hacked and shot to death in Ivory Coast, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court was calling it a possible crime against humanity. As fighting raged in Libya, he named Moammar Gadhafi a possible target for indictment.

His nine-year term nearing its end, Luis Moreno-Ocampo is speeding up the reaction time of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal in an effort to not only prosecute atrocities but possibly even prevent them from happening.

The idea that the court should be an agent for peace is written into its founding statute, which says that ending impunity for atrocities should help avert them. Recently, that role has taken on added urgency as violent rebellions in Libya, Ivory Coast and Kenya have turned civilians into targets for embattled regimes.

Nongovernment groups promoting international justice welcome the more proactive role.

"This is a very good development," said Alison Smith, legal counsel for the advocacy group No Peace Without Justice. "He is essentially putting people on notice that he's watching what they're doing and if they step out of line there's a chance they might end up before the ICC."

It is hard to tell if such warnings are having the effect of reining in extra-judicial killings.

It may have worked in Kenya. Moreno-Ocampo spoke out early, warning that those behind the orgy of violence that followed the country's disputed 2007 presidential elections could be held accountable.

Suspects convicted by the court can face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

Smith said atrocities tapered off after those warnings from The Hague. Even so, by the end of the carnage more than 1,000 Kenyans had died and 600,000 were forced from their homes.

After efforts stalled in Kenya to prosecute those considered responsible, Moreno-Ocampo indicted six influential Kenyans, including former government ministers and the son of the country's first post-independence president, for crimes against humanity.

The first three suspects made their first appearances in a Hague courtroom at a preliminary hearing Thursday and three more, including the son of the country's founding father, will appear Friday.

The first three suspects declared their innocence Thursday.

"There is absolutely no reason why I should be here," former education minister William Ruto said on the steps of the court before joining hands with his supporters and singing the Kenyan national anthem.

Moreno-Ocampo, who ends his tenure next year, points to Kenya as an example of how confronting war crimes can help turn the tide of violence.

"What happened in Kenya is showing how people in a country can discuss massive atrocities," he told The Associated Press. "It's a difficult discussion _ it has tensions _ but there is no killing, there is no Libya situation."

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who helped mediate an end to the violence in 2008, this week urged restraint as the suspects _ now known as "the Ocampo Six" _ go to The Hague.

"There is palpable tension in the air in Kenya, with the flames of hate language and ethnic incitement being fanned from various quarters." Annan said in a statement. "Words can soothe, as well as inflame."

Helping Moreno-Ocampo move fast on Libya last month was the unusually swift order to investigate that came from the Security Council in late February. The so-called referral was part of a raft of measures, including imposing a no-fly-zone over Libya aimed at halting attacks on civilians by Moammar Gadhafi's regime as it battled anti-government rebels.

Within days, Moreno-Ocampo had conducted a preliminary analysis of evidence and opened a formal investigation _ a process which in the past has taken months or even years. He expects to issue indictments in May.

The complexities of wading into the unfolding Libyan situation were highlighted with the case of former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who defected last week.

Last month, Moreno-Ocampo named him a possible suspect, but on Tuesday he appeared to suggest that by fleeing Koussa had cleared himself.

"If you cannot stop the crimes, defecting is a way to avoid criminal responsibility," Moreno-Ocampo said. "So we would like to understand why he defected, what happened and we're trying to interview him."

Christopher Hall, Amnesty International's senior legal adviser on international justice, said such decisive action by the Security Council and the prosecutor is still the exception rather than the rule.

The only other time the Security Council ordered an ICC investigation was in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, where the Khartoum government was accused for years of waging a genocidal campaign against civilians.

"It is at a very, very early stage," Hall said. "Political circumstances coalesced with Darfur and Libya in a manner that has not proved possible with Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, Myanmar or other situations around the world where these crimes have been committed."

And while the prosecutor has acted swiftly in calling for an investigation into last week's mass killings in the west of Ivory Coast, Hall pointed out that the court has been conducting a preliminary analysis of possible crimes there for years without issuing indictments.

"It's certainly encouraging he has expressed an interest in investigating this horrible massacre in Cote d'Ivoire," Hall said. But he regretted that the ICC has still done nothing about the Ivory Coast when killings and mass rape were brought to the court's attention six years ago.

Smith, however, sees the recent flurry of activity as evidence the court "is taking its place in the world stage as a credible actor that has a role to play during times of transition."