The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The International Criminal Court must do better. Reforms are urgently needed.

Demonstrators gathered outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague to call on the court and its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to prosecute Israel's army for war crimes. (Peter Dejong/AP)

Stef Blok is the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands.

When the International Criminal Court was founded in 1998, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the global fight against impunity. And even as ICC’s membership has grown to 123 states, many of the world’s worst criminals continue to escape justice. It’s often easier to prosecute a murderer than a war criminal, or a genocidaire. Especially when they’re the ones in power. That is why the world needs a court of last resort, an institution to prosecute those who national justice systems are unwilling or unable to prosecute. With the ICC the world has such a court, but it should be doing better.

Let there be no misunderstanding: The court is here to stay. And the Netherlands, as its host state, will continue to be a staunch supporter. The ICC is the realization of a long-standing call for justice. It embodies the sentiment that world leaders have expressed time and again in reaction to atrocities: never again. The ICC is the only institution that can deliver justice to the victims of the most serious crimes when all other venues fail. This makes it indispensable in the global fight against impunity.

The value of this was on display earlier this month, when the court sentenced the former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as murder, sexual slavery and conscripting child soldiers. The court’s recent decision to authorize an official investigation into the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh is another signal of hope for the victims of this humanitarian crisis and others.

This is invaluable work, and we need the accountability it delivers. Now more than ever. That’s why the court, and the states party to its statute, need to do better. In its 17-year run, the ICC has only had a limited number of cases on the docket, and a meager record of nine convictions and four acquittals.

This means that too many crimes are left unprosecuted. The ICC’s procedures are inefficient, and its jurisprudence has been criticized for being inconsistent. In this light, the decision by some of the court’s judges to lodge a lawsuit about their salaries is an indication of misguided priorities. One would hope that the judges’ focus would be on their work, rather than their privileges. Especially since they earn close to $200,000 annually, tax-free.

Most of the challenges are not the court’s fault. The ICC is under pressure from some of its supposed allies and members. The court currently has 15 outstanding arrest warrants, and enforcement of these is lacking. In a painful demonstration of states’ unwillingness to cooperate with justice, the former president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, was able to travel the globe without fear of arrest. In addition, many states have refused to adopt voluntary cooperation agreements, are unwilling to increase their financial contributions and frequently put mediocre judges up for election.

This is a highly unwelcome situation. If we truly believe that international justice is an attainable goal, we must practice what we preach and help the ICC to function in the way it was intended. To achieve this, all state parties, as well as the broader international community, must do their part.

Encouraging membership of the court is a good start. African nations are well represented, but Asia is still underrepresented. States need to call on one another to sign and ratify the Rome Statute. Crucially, the ICC needs stronger support from the United Nations Security Council. In a concerning show of division, this body has failed to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, despite the numerous and well-documented war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated there. Bashar al-Assad’s place is not in Damascus, but before the court. Sadly, the Russian veto has thus far prevented this from happening.

Finally, the obstructive attitude of some nonstate parties needs to stop. It’s in the interest of the entire international community that the court can function. Sanctions against court officials are unacceptable, and it’s worrying to see such measures come from the United States, a long-standing friend and ally.

The way forward is a joint effort. This week, the Assembly of States Parties meets in The Hague, and will — hopefully — agree on a review of the court by independent experts. This is a much-needed step forward. It must happen quickly for the ICC to become more efficient and effective soon.

The ICC is a relatively young institution, so we shouldn’t expect the unattainable — but we can expect better. The ICC needs to implement reforms, and it’s up to us, the state parties, to offer support and make this happen.

Read more:

Mohamed Osman: Sudan is still waiting for justice. The world can’t look away.

Rebecca Hamilton: Seize this moment in Sudan