The year 2016 is off to a very busy start for the ICC. And yes, Africa is still front and center at The Hague. First, in December 2015, the ICC finally moved into its permanent headquarters, leaving the small space that they had rented since it was created in 1998. Long gone now are the tiny IKEA courtrooms, or “the Swedish sauna,” as one lawyer once called them. Moving into new offices on the shores of the North Sea that have costed 204 million euros is certainly an indication that the ICC isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It is a permanent feature of international justice—and of international politics, regardless of what its officials say.
The trial of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo—along his ally Charles Blé Goudé, has just started, four years after Gbagbo was transferred to The Hague. This is the first time in history that a former head of state stands trial before the ICC (the charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped before they reached the trial phase). Gbagbo and Blé Goudé are each charged with four counts of crimes again humanity, in relation to the political violence that erupted in Côte d’Ivoire after the 2010 elections.
The confirmation of charges for former Lord Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen have just concluded. (The confirmation of charges is a procedure at the ICC where the prosecutor presents to the pre-trial chamber the preliminary evidence that it has; the judges then issue a ruling whether the evidence is satisfactory enough to move to the trial phase or not.) Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Abducted by the LRA at age 9, Ongwen was a child soldier who later moved up the ranks of the LRA command structure. As such, Ongwen’s case is both one of a victim and an alleged perpetrator, blurring the lines between the two, as British journalist Michela Wrong has documented.
The confirmation of charges against the Malian Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi will start soon. It is argued that during the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali, Al Mahdi participated in the destruction of religious monuments, notably Sufi shrines, in Timbuktu. This is the first time someone is pursued by the ICC on charges of war crimes related to the destruction of religious symbols. The prosecution of these types of crimes is still lagging in international law, following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001, and the ransacking of Palmyra by the ISIS last year.
The case against Al Mahdi, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Turab, is one to watch very closely for many reasons, as Mark Kersten has written here. To complicate the matters further, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has abducted the Swiss Béatrice Stockly in Timbuktu last month, and they just released a video featuring her and requesting among other things that the ICC let Al Mahdi go.
The trial of former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda opened last September and is still ongoing. In 2014, Ntaganda walked into the US embassy in Kigali and asked to be taken to The Hague. He was the deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). His group was active in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ntaganda is charged with 18 accounts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Last December, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga, whose trials had been complete at The Hague, were transferred to the DRC—their home country—to serve their prison sentences. Lubanga has been sentenced to 14 years of prison after being found guilty of recruiting child soldiers. Given that he had been in ICC custody since 2006, he has to serve four more years. Katanga should have been freed a couple weeks ago, after having served 2/3 of his 12-year sentence. But the Congolese government has expressed the intention to prosecute him and keep him in jail, which, of course, raises a host of questions.
Finally, is it possible that the ICC is at last seriously setting its eyes outside of Africa? Last week, Pre-Trial Chamber I gave the Prosecutor the green light to open a full investigation on crimes allegedly committed in Georgia during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. This will be the first full investigation outside of Africa. Other situations under preliminary examination—which have not reached the investigation phase yet—include Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Guinea, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine.