In its short life – only since 2002 have we had an institution dedicated to bringing war criminals and genocidal despots to justice – the International Criminal Court in The Hague has had few successes. Unlike the special UN tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and some internationally inspired domestic trials, such as those of former Khmer Rouge murderers in Cambodia, the ICC has been largely ineffective, though through little fault of its own.
Nothing would do more to build confidence and respect in the ICC than for it to preside over a trial of Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan and wanted for alleged war crimes in Darfur. A court in South Africa, where he is currently attending an African Union summit, has bravely and impressively said he should be prevented from leaving the country.
Yet the chances of Bashir facing justice remain remote. Many African leaders feel the ICC picks on their continent, even though its prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is Gambian and the US, the ultimate Western imperial power, is not a member and just as wary of the ICC. Even if such neocolonial prejudices were true, that would not make Bashir, the Lord’s Resistance Army leaders and war criminals from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo innocent parties.
As with the arrest, detention and eventual release of former President Pinochet of Chile in the UK between 1998 and 2000, realpolitik usually triumphs over international justice (even in a state that fancies itself, as the home of Magna Carta, a pioneer of human rights). Like so many other flawed institutions, the ICC is all we have, and we should support it, but it is not much of a threat to anyone.