By Aaron Gray-Block
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Prosecutors at the world's top war crimes court are failing to bring to trial senior government officials responsible for atrocities, undermining the credibility of the tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.
The International Criminal Court was set up in 2002 to prosecute the world's worst war criminals and has opened investigations into six conflicts, all of them in Africa, and in June issued an arrest warrant for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
But in a 50-page report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Thursday the ICC's cases have not gone far enough to deliver justice and called on prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to close gaps in his investigations and start additional cases.
"The ICC's first investigations have too often bypassed key perpetrators and crimes," said Elizabeth Evenson, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch.
The office of the prosecutor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ICC is no stranger to criticism with some observers critical of its focus on Africa, while the slow pace of its investigations have also frustrated rights groups and others have argued against its perceived political bias.
Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted by the ICC for genocide in Darfur, has dismissed the court as a western conspiracy. In the ICC's first trial, defense lawyers argued that accused Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was being tried as a political scapegoat.
In contrast, the U.N's Yugoslavia tribunal has managed to prosecute crimes committed by all factions in the Balkan wars, a rebuttal against claims it was biased against one particular group, HRW said.
The Yugoslavia tribunal's last remaining fugitive, Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic, was arrested in July.
The ICC, like the Yugoslavia court, has no police force of its own and relies on state co-operation to enforce arrest warrants and many of its indicted suspects remain at large.
However, in assessing the first five conflicts the ICC started investigating prior to its Libya probe, HRW noted the court's work has produced 10 cases and three trials, making "an important contribution to tackling impunity for some of the world's worst crimes."
But it also said too many victims have been left without justice, undermining perceptions of the court's independence and impartiality and called for additional investigations.
In Congo and Uganda, rebel groups have been investigated, but no charges laid against government officials and armed forces widely alleged to have committed serious abuses, it said.
HRW said the ICC's investigations in Kenya, however, were "a welcome shift from past practice" as the prosecutor was seeking charges against alleged perpetrators from both sides of the country's 2007-2008 post-election violence.
But, gaps remain in delivering on the ICC's mandate in conflicts where the court was pursuing prosecutions and as funding and resources get stretched thin, the prosecutor needs better strategies for case selection, HRW said.
"The ICC prosecutor's tough choices face intense scrutiny, which makes it all the more important that they enhance the court's independence and credibility," said Evenson.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; Editing by Matthew Jones)