Lecture explores the role of international court

William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University London, swore he’d never return to Canada during the winter when he moved to Ireland 17 years ago. He was back in Canada, however, on Thursday, Feb. 16 to deliver the Lodhi Memorial Lecture in Human Rights.

The lecture focused on the history of the International Criminal Court (ICC) system and its role in the modern world.

“The [human rights] institutions can’t just hunker down like turtles in a shell and wait for the storm to pass,” said Schabas.

“They have to go out and weather the storm and that’s where the International Criminal Court has a role to play, as do the other international human rights institutions.”

Schabas, 66 years old with black-rimmed circular glasses and grey-white hair, spoke without notes or a microphone. He has authored more than 20 books and 350 articles on international criminal tribunals, the abolition of capital punishment, genocide and human rights. He holds several honorary doctorates and he’s an Officer of the Order of Canada.

One-hundred and twenty one countries have joined the ICC since it was developed 15 years ago. A country must agree to be a part of the ICC before it can conduct investigations. Seventy-five countries, amounting to more than half the world’s population, have not joined the ICC.

“There are cracks in the walls, in the obstacles to [joining] the International Criminal Court that are slowly starting to open,” said Schabas.

Africa was a supporter of the ICC when it was first introduced, although the ICC’s heavy concentration in investigations in Africa over the years has caused discontent in the continent. Six months ago, three African countries quit the court, something no country has done before. Others have since threatened to quit as well.

Schabas said the court was insensitive for how it dealt with Africa and it has to bear some of the blame for why Africa quit the court.

“I think the explanations for this is complicated … I think the court has to bear some of the blame,” he said.

It is up to the prosecutor to choose the places and people to prosecute and “ultimately, there is something political about these decisions,” Schabas said.

The current prosecutor of the ICC is considering conducting proceedings against powerful countries, like the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, an action that could stimulate participation or interest in the ICC from non-participating countries.

However, Schabas said the ICC is currently threatened by the rise of nationalism, as the ICC is designed to bring nations together and nationalism focuses on a nation’s individual interests. The present-day rise of nationalism is different from the rise of nationalism in the 1930s, as we now have institutions, like the ICC, that are built “so that that situation gets stopped before it starts again,” he said.

According to Schabas, whether or not these institutions can truly prevent history from repeating itself is unknown, but he is hopeful that the international human rights institutions will stand up in the modern world.

“17 years from now, when I come back to Canada in the winter, I hope that we’ll have seen that happen.”

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