Center for Justice and Accountability
“Ending Impunity: The International Criminal Court in the Age of Accountability”
As I write this, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is welcoming its 109th member country. After 10 years of heated debate, Chile — once ravaged by human rights abuses — has ratified the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that created the ICC. This occasion stands as a major landmark: All of South America has now joined the ICC. The remarkable story of how the ICC reached this milestone is the story of international justice itself.
Just a few decades ago, the southern cone of South America was a geographic triangle of state terror: Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentina. One by one, republics crumbled and the cancer of torture and political violence metastasized to every nation. To the north, in Colombia and Peru, brutal civil wars claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. This was the continent that made the word “disappear” into a transitive verb, a place where citizens vanished into the night and fog of secret prisons and mass graves.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as South America began to emerge from its long night of repression, few of its citizens would have dreamed that one day their governments would impose accountability for atrocities. Instead, impunity seemed the order of the day. In 1995, former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet announced, “It is best to remain silent and to forget. It is the only thing to do: We must forget. And forgetting does not occur by opening cases, putting people in jail.”
This forgetting took the form of law. As part of the negotiated transitions from the old regimes to the new, perpetrators were swaddled in legal amnesty, a word derived from the ancient Greek amnestia, “to forget.” Even when criminal prosecutions did proceed — ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo headed the 1983 trials of Argentine military leaders — convictions were not enforced or were later rolled back by means of pardons. Forgetting, we were told, was the price of peace.
But as societies debated the question of peace versus justice, something seemed lost: the voices of victims and survivors. For many victims and survivors, impunity spelled neither justice nor peace. In time, this sentiment coalesced into a grassroots movement for international justice. This global grassroots group — made up of courageous survivors and committed human rights defenders — soon found institutional expression for its ideas. In the Western Hemisphere, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have issued decades of important rulings, and their sanctions include successfully ordering Latin American governments to pay reparations. In Europe and Africa, ad hoc international courts such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia promised criminal prosecutions for mass atrocities. Still, these seemed exceptions to the rule.
And then, in 1998, the world changed. With the arrest of Pinochet in London, following an extradition request by a Spanish judge, the age of accountability began. In June of that same year — by a vote of 120 nations in favor, seven against — the Rome Statute was passed, establishing the ICC as a permanent tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and as a court of last resort when states are unable or unwilling to prosecute these crimes. The ICC’s mission is inseparable from that of the broader movement for international justice. The ICC was designed to complement, not to replace, national courts. And, remarkably, after it was formed, some national courts began to take the lead in enforcing accountability.
Networks of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reached across borders to bring human rights cases to trial in many countries. In the United States, organizations such as the Center for Justice and Accountability, the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International brought human rights cases into federal civil courts. In 2000, a Haitian court convicted 59 officers and officials of the 1994 Raboteau Massacre. In 2005, a Spanish court convicted Argentine officer Adolfo Scilingo of “dirty war” crimes.
The list of prosecutions is growing. Liberian warlord Charles “Chuckie” Taylor was convicted of torture in the United States. His father, President Charles Taylor, is on trial in Sierra Leone. Chadian president Hissène Habré has been indicted in Belgium and is facing prosecution in Senegal. Former Khmer Rouge torturer Kaing Guek Eav (aka Duch) is on trial in Cambodia. Add to this list the 14 indictments for mass atrocities brought by the ICC, and it becomes clear that a cascade of justice is spilling over the globe.
Back in South America, fewer than 20 years after Pinochet lectured Chileans on forgetting the past, accountability is becoming reality. In 2009, the ICC will have jurisdiction over all of South America; this same year, former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori will begin to serve a 35-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. With each prosecution secured by the grassroots international justice movement, impunity nears its end.
Scott Gilmore is a writer and researcher with the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights organization dedicated to ending torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world. He is co-founder of a theater company, Le Petit Theatre de l’Absolu, and of the musical groups Black Ox Orkestar and the Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra.