Justice for Atrocity Victims

06/28/2012 03:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2012

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the start of world's first global court to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity -- widespread and systematic atrocities -- wherever they occur around the world.

Adopted at a diplomatic conference in Rome in 1998, the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC) came into force in July 2002, after ratification of 60 countries. To its supporters, the Hague-based Court is a ground-breaking institution that has inherited the legacy of war crimes tribunals that punished perpetrators of atrocities after World War II, and serves as a living monument to the millions of victims of killings over the past several decades, from Cambodia to Congo.

To its detractors, the Court is an illegitimate institution which could well target American leaders for politically motivated prosecutions. As a senior Bush administration official in 2002, Ambassador John Bolton signed a letter to the United Nations that withdrew President Bill Clinton's December 2000 U.S. signature on the treaty, and declared that renouncing the signature was "the happiest moment of my government service."

As the White House official who led the review that resulted in President Clinton's signature on the ICC treaty, I've had more than a passing interest in the Bush administration's initial decision to condemn the Court -- as well as the subsequent evolution of policy in both the Bush and Obama Administrations. On this tenth anniversary, what is the record of this new institution, as well as its relationship to other efforts to promote accountability for gross violations of human rights?

First, recent history demonstrates that fears that the Court prosecutor would pursue politicized prosecutions were overblown. The prosecutor has taken very seriously the legal mandate to pursue only those cases that involve widespread and egregious abuses, rejecting many thousands of complaints -- including against the United States -- over the past decade.

In fact, the Bush administration implemented a quiet yet remarkable near-reversal of the hostile approach reflected in the initial decision to "un-sign" the Treaty. By 2005, President Bush acquiesced in a Security Council decision to ask the Court to investigate abuses in Darfur. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later affirmed the role of the ICC in Sudan, declaring that the United States was "the country that's been the most active in resisting calls to interfere with the International Criminal Court investigation." The Bush administration endorsed an improved relationship with the Court, with the State Department Legal Adviser calling for "practical ways to work with ICC supporters." The Obama administration has stepped up this cooperation, enhancing the Court's capacity to promote human rights and accountability for atrocities as well as the U.S. capacity to influence the Court's development.

This makes good sense. While the Court has been criticized for its slow pace and for focusing attention on African countries to the exclusion of other areas of the world, it has nonetheless pursued careful and important investigations of gross and systematic human rights violations in places like Sudan and Libya, challenging the notion that abusers can act with impunity and helping to bring pressure to bear to end atrocities.

The Court has evolved amidst other important efforts to address widespread deprivations of human dignity over the past decade. In particular, its development has coincided with U.N. Security Council resolutions affirming that governments of the world have a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity when national governments are unable or unwilling to do so. Adopted in the aftermath of failures to stop widespread killings in Rwanda and the Balkans during the 1990s, this "responsibility to protect" doctrine has begun to impact the behavior of states.

In Libya, for example, it was the major rationale for Security Council authorization to use force to end Muammar Gaddafi's attack on Benghazi in March 2011, when military action by the international community saved many thousands of lives.

Of course, none of this guarantees that powerful governments will always move to prevent or end widespread abuses when given the chance. Earlier this year, both Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution designed to pressure the regime of Bashir Assad to end its campaign of repression against the people of Syria. But clearly, both the Russians and the Chinese -- not to mention the Syrian regime -- are on the defensive, pressured by an evolving norm that makes a government's treatment of its people the legitimate concern of the international community.

This is good news. It is a fitting tribute to victims of atrocities, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or the Balkans, and offers the prospect of a brighter future for millions of people around the world.

Eric P. Schwartz is Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He served as the senior White House adviser on international human rights issues during the Clinton Administration.