A Glimmer of Justice

Rebel fighters celebrate on the front line, after hearing news that the ICC had issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Gaddafi

Ever since 1983, when Argentina made the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, holding government officials accountable for atrocious crimes has been at the top of the international human rights agenda. After President Raúl Alfonsín came to power, Argentina established the first effective truth commission—the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons—to document human rights violations that had occurred over the course of the fallen dictatorship. It was accompanied by prosecutions in domestic courts of high-level military officers who had ruled the country during the dictatorship. Five of them were found guilty of abuses.

Other Latin American countries, including Chile and El Salvador, set up truth commissions some years later, and they were followed by more than forty countries in different parts of the world. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched in South Africa in 1995 was the most notable example, because all of its proceedings took place in public hearings and because the law establishing it encouraged torturers and murderers to confess by allowing them to thereby obtain amnesty and avoid prosecution.

Those seeking accountability have a dual agenda: to determine the truth about crimes, their victims, and their perpetrators, and to obtain justice through the prosecution and punishment of those most responsible for them. In the early 1990s, the effort to fulfill these goals entered a new phase with the establishment of the first international criminal courts since the post–World War II tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo. The United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and a similar body for Rwanda the following year. The UN also collaborated with national governments in countries such as Sierra Leone and Cambodia, where atrocious crimes had been committed, to create “hybrid” criminal courts. In 1998, representatives of most of the world’s governments assembled in Rome and adopted a treaty, known as the Rome Statute, calling for the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). For many of those active in the international human rights movement, this was the peak achievement of the drive to ensure accountability. It would have a global effect in curbing atrocities.

Though adoption of the Rome Statute was opposed by the United States1 and a few other governments (China, Iraq, Sudan, Qatar, Yemen, and Israel), and many more abstained when it came to a vote at the Rome conference, the momentum behind the cause of international accountability propelled the ICC into existence. Because formation of the court required at least sixty countries to ratify the Rome Statute, and because many countries could not ratify it without first amending their own constitutions (to eliminate such provisions as grants of immunity for heads of state and limits on the duration of prison sentences), it…

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