In the ICC’s shadow, a reincarnation of tribunals?

25 March 2015 by Benjamin Duerr, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Every few weeks, it seems, a call sounds to establish a tribunal for mass-atrocity crimes. The most recent example is Syria, for which UN war crimes investigators this month urged the international community to set up a new court.  Failure to get Syria referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the UN Security Council, with its deep-seated divisions, has clearly driven the search for alternatives.

Violence in the Central African Republic forced this family to leave home and live in the shell of an aircraft at Bangui International Airport, in December 2013 (Photo: Flickr/Catholic Relief Services/S.Phelps)
Image caption: 
Violence in the Central African Republic forced this family to leave home and live in the shell of an aircraft at Bangui International Airport, in December 2013 (Photo: Flickr/Catholic Relief Services/S.Phelps)

The ICC was created to prosecute select high-ranking perpetrators and is subject to unequivocal restrictions on ability to intervene. But in 2002 when the court opened its doors as the first permanent institution for global justice, tribunals –with their limitations in temporal and geographic scope – seemed bound to become a thing of the past. The tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are expected to close in 2015 and 2017, respectively; the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) shut down in 2013.

The first decade of the ICC, however, has convinced many that it cannot be the sole institution for international justice. Additional mechanisms are needed to bridge the ‘impunity gap’ left when national systems cannot manage otherwise. It is therefore unsurprising that recent months have witnessed a resurgence in the idea of UN-backed tribunals.

The limitations of national courts

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