08/21/2013 06:45 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Civil Society: A Powerful Voice That Cannot Be Ignored

Despite the summer lull, the International Criminal Court (ICC) continues to receive the attention of the international media. On July 17 the Day for International Criminal Justice marked the achievements of the international community in the fight against impunity. At the same time, media outlets in Africa were widely reporting on an urgent request to convene all States Parties to the Rome Statute, to discuss, among other things, recent decisions of the African Union and the very future of the founding documents of the ICC. Simultaneously, a State Party to the Statute of the ICC found itself under scrutiny for its non-compliance with the requests of the Court regarding two outstanding arrest warrants by the ICC against one person, a visitor to its territory. The spotlight is warranted. The rise of international criminal justice is a global process in which many serious challenges remain. While attention is mostly and correctly focused on the key role that States have in ensuring its success, there is another powerful force in play -- that of civil society -- that has been and remains pivotal in ensuring accountability. By raising their voices and calling upon States to abide by their commitments, by taking action in local court, and by appealing to the international stage, civil society supporters of international criminal justice constitute a powerful voice that cannot be ignored or silenced.

There are 122 States Parties to the Rome Statute. While it is quite impressive, compared to, for example, the United Nations membership that currently stands at 193, this number still pales in comparison to the 2,500 civil society organizations that collaborate beneath the umbrella of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC). Spanning across 150 countries, all these organizations are working to ensure an international criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and independent. The CICC advisory board, composed of a number of eminent persons in the fields of international justice and human rights, is chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who has personal experience in efforts of the international community to ensure accountability as well as memories of grim failures. "We must remember what prompted us to act. It began in the burning villages of Rwanda, their paths, fields, and even their churches, strewn with corpses. And the next year, in the bombed-out buildings of Bosnia and the horror of Srebrenica, where upwards of eight thousand defenseless men and boys were shot and dumped into pits," writes K. Annan in his recent memoir "Interventions: A Life in War and Peace", explaining the profound importance of pursuing justice. "Further progress will require vision, a strong sense of purpose, and even courage."

Besides the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, there are myriad organizations working with such purpose and courage to strengthen and ensure accountability. Members of civil society are essential supporters and advocates, but also attentive and necessary observers, with no small detail or flaw escaping their attention. When necessary, they stand as fierce critics who act as the conscience of the international criminal justice regime.

Civil society initiatives were a driving force for international justice since before the Court was created and many of those who were present when the Rome Statute was adopted continue to work for its improvement. Officials of the Court and States Parties are constantly reminded of the need to continue explaining how the Court and the Rome Statute System are set up. Here, assistance from civil society organizations is crucial. This work takes place at all levels and through varied mediums, whether through awareness campaigns, engaging in dialogue, organizing events, or undertaking other work toward ending impunity.

We are also painfully aware that different political constraints and realities are at times so overwhelming that States Parties fail to stand by their obligations under the Statute. In cases like these, civil society actors can play a crucial role by raising their voice and making sure that non-cooperation on the part of States Parties does not go unnoticed, hopefully also complicating the lives of those wanted by the Court and its orders.