Should we expect the ICC to always get convictions?

Should we expect the ICC to always get convictions?

The International Criminal Court issued its second verdict in the case of Congolese militia leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, and to the disappointment of many, it’s an acquittal:

Delivering only its second verdict in 10 years of existence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Ngudjolo not guilty of ordering killings during a war in Ituri district in 2003. In its first ever verdict, delivered in July, the court had jailed an opposing commander, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for 14 years.

Ngudjolo was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including overseeing killings, rape and pillage. His prosecutors will appeal the verdict and, though the court said Ngudjolo should be freed in the meantime, it was not immediately clear that he could leave the ICC detention facility for now.

In the wake of the verdict, the court is coming under fire from some of the trial’s most ardent supporters: 

"The people trusted the International Criminal Court more than our national courts," said Emmanuel Folo of Ituri human rights group Equitas. "After this decision, for those who were victims of this, there is a feeling of disappointment. The victims feel forgotten, abandoned by international justice."

Human Rights Watch felt the scope of the prosecution should have been broadened

Human Rights Watch Senior DRC Researcher, Anneke Van Woudenberg, said there were "clear weaknesses" in this case.

"Remember that in a place like Ituri, there were multiple massacres that occurred over a number of years.  What the judges said today was that they could not beyond reasonable doubt be sure that for this particular massacre, Mathieu Ngudjolo had been the leader of the group at the time. But they did say, they were clear, that Mathieu Ngudjolo had been a key leader of the militia later on and that he did hold command responsibility in the months that followed," said Van Woudenberg. "So it should give some pause for thought to the prosecution that building cases which are so limited on the base of only one massacre without more broadly looking at what happened in the context of Ituri is dangerous and doesn’t give us good justice." 

I understand the frustration here, but I do think there’s a danger in human rights groups decrying trial as a failure because a suspect was not convicted. One of the main criticisms leveled at the ICC is that it is a European-based organization that has exclusively convicted Africans. Despite Fatou Bensouda of Gambia’s role as chief prosecutor, it’s not hard to understand why many see it as a forum for western nations to pass judgment on African crimes. Calls to broaden the scope of prosecutions to make it easier to ensure convictions seem unlikely to combat the impression that the court’s proceedings are politically motivated, or a form of victor’s justice.

In any fair court, defendants — includings ones who are almost certainly guilty — are going to sometimes be acquitted for reasons ranging from lack of evidence to prosecutorial incompetence. There are certainly reasonable calls being made to reform the court, and mistakes may have been made in this prosecution but if these are to be more than show trials meant to give a formal veneer to the widespread opinion of the international community, we’re going to have to accept that sometimes the bad guys will get away with it.