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

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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