Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The End of Impunity?

• June 19, 2009 • 12:00 PM

An upcoming PBS documentary shows how the International Criminal Court is changing the world’s approach to crimes against humanity.

Two years into the new century, humanity took what may be a momentous leap forward, and most of us missed it entirely. While the United States was licking its wounds in the wake of 9/11 and gearing up for the Iraq War, the International Criminal Court opened its offices and began pursuing its bold agenda: to prosecute war atrocities and other crimes against humanity in places where the local authorities are unwilling or unable to do so.

Unlike the short-lived tribunals following World War II and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia (which served as important templates), the ICC was designed as a permanent institution. Based in The Hague and backed financially by the 100-plus nations that ratified the treaty (the U.S., Russia and China are the major holdouts), the court was founded on the radical idea that justice should not be at the mercy of national sovereignty. Some crimes are simply too heinous for the international community to ignore.

But which crimes? How does one go about investigating and prosecuting them? And what takes precedence when the pursuit of justice hampers the pursuit of peace? The ICC has been grappling with all these issues during its early years, as its leaders delicately feel their way through uncharted legal territory. These courageous baby steps are chronicled in Pamela Yates’ documentary The Reckoning, which will be broadcast July 14 on PBS as part of the P.O.V. series.

By necessity, the film does not have the structure typical of a courtroom drama: It does not take one case and follow it to its conclusion. International human rights law is a slow-moving process, even by judicial standards, and none of the cases the ICC has investigated to date has culminated in a verdict. The case that has progressed the furthest is that of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo; his lengthy, ongoing trial began Jan. 26, one week after the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

So Yates and her team were forced to focus on a less dramatic but ultimately more important element of the story: the careful way in which the court has begun its work, mindful of its need to establish an aura of authority. The ICC, which is independent of the United Nations, has no police force of its own, let alone an army. It relies upon the cooperation of its member states — a reality that means lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo must be both a fierce advocate and a delicate diplomat.

Though the film boasts several compelling characters (most notably Ben Ferencz, a 27-year-old prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who has lived long enough to see the ICC become a reality), Moreno-Ocampo is its quietly charismatic central figure. The Argentine attorney is uniquely qualified for the position: In 1985, he successfully prosecuted members of his nation’s former military junta on charges of torturing and murdering their political opponents.

Moreno-Ocampo comes across as a world-weary figure, more sage than firebrand. Watching him consult with his staff, cajole politicians and hold press conferences, an image emerges of a cautious revolutionary, one who is carefully and methodically staking out new legal territory. When objections to the court’s admittedly intrusive activities are raised, he always returns the focus of the discussion to the victims of the crime in question. Too often, he contends, they have been the forgotten element in peace deals and amnesty agreements.

Each of the cases the court has pursued to date has its own flavor, and together they illustrate the various ways an ICC investigation can be instigated and the different paths they can take. In Uganda, the court was asked by the government — which essentially admitted its powerlessness in the matter — to prosecute rebel leaders accused of kidnapping young boys and forcing them to join their army.

The government hoped this action would put pressure on the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and it did: Key members of the rebel hierarchy, apparently fearful of prosecution, initiated peace talks. But they also insisted on amnesty as a price for the laying down of weapons. It is fascinating to watch ordinary Ugandans at outdoor public meetings debate this unpalatable but hard-to-resist offer.

In Colombia, human rights organizations petitioned the court to investigate the criminal activities of paramilitary groups with ties to the government. In this instance, the ICC has played a quite different role: The presence of its prosecutors became a way of putting pressure on the authorities to clean up their own house. As in Uganda, the situation remains unresolved.

Finally, there is Darfur, which was referred to the court for possible prosecution by the U.N. Security Council. After finding clear evidence implicating him in crimes of genocide, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been linked to the region’s infamous Janjaweed militias. Al-Bashir reacted angrily, expelling international humanitarian agencies, and the situation remains at a stalemate. Once again, the question arises: Is the court, at least in the short term, doing more harm than good? Or must any lasting peace involve an acknowledgement of the horrors that occurred, with the truth established in a court of law?

Yates clearly believes so but does not shy from the topic’s inherent ambiguity. Although she is an outspoken champion of the court and its work, her beautifully crafted film does not have a propagandistic tone. “I tried to humanize a judicial institution —to get to know the people who are inside it making these decisions,” she said.

Of course, a more skeptical filmmaker could have framed the story of the ICC’s early years as a case study in impotence. But that would be premature. At this point, the court is something of a wild card: Its presence clearly impacts a situation but in unpredictable ways. This gives the film a cliffhanger ending, an issue Yates will address by making a number of short films for the Web site ijcentral.org.

Yates notes that the issues raised in the film have “particular resonance in the U.S. right now, as we grapple with our own recent past.” Given revelations about government-sanctioned torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, it’s hard to watch her interview with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton without wincing. His reasons for the U.S. not joining the ICC are principled and well-articulated, but one can’t help but wonder whether he was also fearful of what an investigation of American behavior might expose.

There’s no word yet from the Obama administration as to whether the U.S. government’s attitude toward the court will shift. No doubt a Senate debate on becoming an official member would be inflammatory and contentious. But in a world where an increasing number of nation-states are unable to control activity within their own borders, the presence of an international system of justice will likely take on increasing importance. The Reckoning makes a convincing case that, in both practical and moral terms, the ICC’s time has arrived.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.