Tentative triumph for international law in Libya

As I wrote in my piece for IJC on ‘the year ahead’ all humanitarian intervention needs is one success.

The International Criminal Court can take credit for giving the international military intervention above and the rebels below a boost in the Libyan conflict. In June when the court issued an arrest warrant for Saif Al-Islam and Gaddafi the going was slow. People were wondering if Gaddafi would ever be leaving and the rebels had lost key towns. The arrest warrant reminded the international community that it wasn’t just a military operation. That, as British Prime Minister David Cameron points out, “you can’t drop democracy from 40000 feet”. It served to remind Gaddafi that he simply couldn’t go on. That the moment fighting was over, if he survived it, he would be expected to appear before the court in the Hague. It also gave the public a fresh perspective on it. People know so little about international law that some were surprised that there was this court in the Netherlands that held war criminals that had the authority and support to simply issue arrest warrants for bad people. So many people being ignorant of that would have simply expected killing Gaddafi as the only option or the best of a bad set of options.

What is needed next? The next stage is the most complicated. It’s keyhole surgery. We must, must get Gaddafi and his son Saif Al-Islam out of Tripoli and into the court. They can’t be allowed to be killed in a fire-fight or disappear into the desert. Of course there is a more complex possibility, there have been rumblings early this morning that South Africa intends to airlift him and others out to the south. They should recall immediately that they signed the Rome Statute of the ICC in 1998. However if this scenario were to happen this could in fact provide an easier mechanism for seeing him and others in the Hague. South Africa has signed agreements to make investigation and extradition to the court easier, Libya isn’t even a state party of the Rome Statute of the ICC. Regardless of this, NATO has a no-fly zone over Libya, NATO jets might shoot his plane down unaware of its inhabitant.

Why is it so important that these arrest warrants come to something and see successful prosecutions? The ICC doesn’t have a long history or a significant backlog of successful indictments. It needs this success so it can say in future “we did this, you need international law, it is part of the formula for peace”. It’s not that isn’t good at what it does it’s that capturing war criminals and getting enough evidence to prosecute them effectively is incredibly difficult. Remember, you’re trying to extricate a person and evidence they will have tried to destroy from a situation where they are in charge of a country or military and don’t want to be arrested.

An ICC arrest warrant should be one of the most fierce-some tools of international law and peace. It should instill fear in the hearts of dictators. It shouldn’t be a wasted piece of paper or something that could be ignored. Whilst we need this success in Libya that can’t be the end of it, we need more successes. I for one believe that prospects are looking up… of course depending on what happens in Libya over the next few days.