The establishment of the International Criminal Court followed the gravest of crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Republic of Yugoslavia. In both cases, as we know to our shame, the United Nations and international community failed to take decisive and forceful action to protect the victims.
These terrible events did however, shock the world into action. Ad-hoc tribunals were set up to bring those responsible to justice. The Rome conference in 1998 agreed to establish an International Criminal Court to help end the global culture of impunity.
As the states party to the Rome Statute — which set up the I.C.C. — meet in Uganda this week to review progress, we can reflect that the balance has been tipped in favor of justice. More than two-thirds of U.N. member states have signed or ratified the Rome Statute and a permanent Criminal Court now exists.
The result is that in the face of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the default position of the international community is no longer impunity but accountability.
Where such serious crimes are credibly alleged, investigation will now follow unless those denying the need for international justice can demonstrate that their national judicial mechanisms are serious and credible. This is, by the way, something yet to be done convincingly by those involved in the intensified conflicts in Gaza and Sri Lanka last year.
Getting this far has not been without major challenges. Powerful governments remain resolutely opposed to the I.C.C. Three permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, China and Russia — refuse to ratify the Rome Statute, as do others who aspire to permanent membership.
So while celebrating progress so far, we can’t be complacent. The opposition of those hostile to the I.C.C., combined with the inertia or distraction of those who support it, could mean the balance could easily tip away from justice.
And new challenges loom, including a debate within Africa, and beyond, about whether the pursuit of justice might obstruct the search for peace. The critics ask why leaders would want to make peace if the result for them is an appearance before the I.C.C. and the prospect of prison.
But in countries as far apart as Rwanda, Bosnia and Timor-Leste, we have learnt that justice is not an impediment to peace but a partner. When we abandon justice to secure peace, we most likely get neither. Indeed, impunity can, and has, contributed to renewed conflict as we saw in Sierra Leone.
The parallel pursuit of justice and peace does present challenges, but it can be managed. We must be ambitious enough to pursue both, and wise enough to recognize, respect and protect the independence of justice.
This debate has been intensified by the African Union’s call last year, following the prompting of a few leaders, for member states not to cooperate with the I.C.C. in enforcing the indictment issued against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan.
But we must not allow the views of a powerful few to threaten the aspirations of many. When I meet Africans from all walks of life, they demand justice: from their own courts if possible, from international courts if no credible alternative exists.
Indeed, African countries and their civil society played a major role in setting up the I.C.C. Sub-Saharan Africa is the largest single regional block in its membership.
In four of the five cases from Africa before the I.C.C., African leaders themselves referred them or are actively co-operating with the investigations. They have asked for international help to bolster their country’s judicial capacity.
In all of these cases, it is the culture of impunity, not African countries, which are the target. This is exactly the role of the I.C.C. It is a court of last resort.
But it is not just African countries which face challenges if we are to continue the momentum towards justice.
Questions of credibility will continue as long as some of the world’s most powerful countries stand outside the jurisdiction of the I.C.C. What sort of leadership is it that absolves the powerful from the rules they apply to the weak? We must demand that those who seek global leadership accept the duty of promoting global values.
We need to see a new wave of countries ratifying the Rome Statute after the Kampala conference, so that a permanent International Criminal Court becomes a universal one.
Further progress also depends on states genuinely exercising their primary responsibility, under the Rome Statute, to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for grave crimes.
There must be no going back or lessening of momentum. Our challenge is to protect the innocent by building a court so strong, universal and effective that it will deter even the most determined of despots.
Opening the Rome Conference as U.N. Secretary-General, I told delegates that “the eyes of the victims of past crimes, and of the potential victims of future ones, are fixed firmly upon us.”
That remains the case. We must not let them down.
Kofi A. Annan is former U.N. secretary-general (1997-2006) and the convener of the Rome Conference.