by Mariana Rodriguez-Pareja on 06 Jul 2011 | Comments
The event was supposed to be held in 2010, but Sudan’s tireless efforts to convince Qatar to cancel the event could only persuade the Qatari government to postpone it indefinitely. One year later, on 24 May 2011, Qatar, in cooperation with the League of Arab States and the International Criminal Court (ICC), sponsored the first-ever Regional Diplomatic Conference on the International Criminal Court. The two-day gathering and first major event of its kind offered a platform for officials and civil society in the region to discuss issues on international justice and the ICC.
Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, together with Judge Sang-Hyun Song, President of the ICC, delivered the opening remarks of the conference, held in Doha, Qatar. The fact that Qatar hosted the event – and that the Emir delivered the welcoming remarks - is seen as a positive development for the Gulf region and for the Arab World after a period of ill-founded hostility towards the Court.
Qatar invited Bashir
This is a huge step forward considering that in 2009 the same country refused to arrest Omar al- Bashir, President of Sudan and ICC indictee, when he visited the country for the annual Summit of Arab-South American countries. Although Qatar is not a state party to the ICC, it had a legal obligation to arrest al-Bashir, which stems from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1593 – the resolution refers the Darfur situation to the ICC and requires the cooperation of all UN Member States.
The vast majority of South American presidents openly rejected al-Bashir’s participation in the Summit and refused to sit at the same table or take pictures with a suspected criminal alleged to have committed genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against his own people in the Darfur region of Sudan—charges that are included in the arrest warrant issued against him by the ICC in 2009. Only Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, openly supported al-Bashir (and invited him to Caracas) despite the fact that Venezuela was the first Latin American country to ratify the Rome Statute.
A positive step toward fighting impunity
While the Regional Conference on the ICC was not the first event on the ICC celebrated in the Middle Eastern Region (NGOs throughout the region have held many events on the ICC and international justice, especially in Lebanon and Egypt), no other event has had such political support and impact.
The Emir of Qatar spoke about impartiality, equality before justice and fair trials, and underscored Qatar’s interest in the “repression of the crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of genocide” and in bringing perpetrators of these crimes to justice “to preserve international peace and stability and to respect human dignity.” During the Conference, the Emir also met privately with ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and although the subjects of their discussion were not made public, all parties agreed it was a friendly and cordial meeting.
Furthermore, the conference provided a platform for the different stakeholders to engage in fruitful discussions on the ICC process and Arab States were urged to seize the current regional momentum calling for good governance by joining the Court and the global fight against impunity. It must be recalled that Arab states were actively involved in the establishment of the Court, particularly the Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Jordanian, and Syrian delegations that participated in the Rome Conference and the Preparatory Commission meetings.
Moreover, despite disagreement on some issues, most Arab officials acknowledged that expanding the Court’s membership in the region is vital in order to achieve global legitimacy of the Rome Statute. While recognizing the Court as a positive tool to render justice and fight impunity, Arab leaders also criticized the ICC and accused it of having double standards, pointing to the fact that it has not acted in Palestine.
However, Court officials, including the Prosecutor, are, in fact, conducting an assessment on whether or not the Court can exercise jurisdiction over Palestine; the decision is scheduled for the coming months. It is indeed frustrating that the ICC Office of the Prosecutor is so keen to act in certain instances but not in others. The pace at which it is conducting its preliminary examinations in Colombia, Georgia, Afghanistan, is disconcerting as it only slows down the judicial process and narrows victims’ access to justice.
Gulf Cooperation States
On 14 June 2011 top diplomats of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) met in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah for their second regular meeting of the year. Qatar is a founding member of the GCC and despite media reports in 2009 indicating that the GCC countries were looking into collectively joining the ICC, none of them is yet party to the Rome Statute.
However, the GCC took both a positive and interesting step in the fight against impunity. For the first time in nearly two years, the final communiqué issued by the Foreign Ministers of Arab Gulf States did not include a reference to the ICC and the arrest warrant issued against Omar al-Bashir. Since 2009, all statements issued upon conclusion of the meetings included a paragraph rejecting the ICC arrest warrant against the Sudanese president. It is unclear why the condemnation was not included, but given the ongoing human rights abuses in Darfur - and continued fighting in the Abyei region and Nuba Mountains - it stands to reason that the GCC recognized the need to impose pressure on Bashir by supporting, tacitly at least, the rule of law. While it still may take some time for some Arab states to uniformly condemn international crimes in Darfur, this is a clear step forward.
In addition, GCC states that are part of the Libya contact group endorsed the referral of the situation in Libya to the ICC last February. Also, at the 2010 ICC Review Conference held in Kampala, Uganda, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah Alansari, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Justice, stated “Kuwait is seriously considering the accession to the Rome Statute of the ICC.” Possible prospective states in the region that may join the ICC include Kuwait, UAE, Oman, and Qatar, and signatories to the Rome Statute include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, and Yemen. All of these developments are representative of the significant reshaping of the political landscape in the region.
Qatar Becomes a Focal Point
On 20 June 2011, Qatari Attorney General Dr. al-Marri visited The Hague and met with ICC officials including President Judge Song, Registrar Silvana Arbia and Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo to discuss the recommendations of the Doha Conference. Dr. al- Marri stressed that the Conference was the first step in the right direction, adding that he was looking forward to continued co-operation between the Court and Qatar. During their meeting, the officials praised the frank and direct dialogue between Qatar and the different ICC organs, and further highlighted the platform that the Conference offered for dialogue and exchange of views among participants.
In addition, an agreement was signed designating Doha, Qatar, as the ICC’s regional focal point for the training of Arab lawyers on the ICC. It is therefore imperative for the Court to conduct necessary outreach and to ensure regular visits and meetings between representatives of the ICC and key stakeholders in order to discuss the Court’s work and clarify these particular topics.
Arab States and the ICC
Currently, only 4 of the 22 Arab League states are states parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC: Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, and most recently Tunisia (having acceded on 24 June 2011). However, with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and protests throughout the Arab World – dubbed the “Arab Spring” – there has been renewed interest from Arab States in the ICC.
At present, ICC judges presiding over the Libya situation have issued three arrest warrants for Libyan leader Muammar M. Gaddafi, his son and Government Spokesman Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, and Director of Military Intelligence Abdullah Al-Senussi, for alleged crimes against humanity committed in Libya since 15 February 2011.
In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa established an independent panel to investigate the violence occurring in the country. Interestingly, two experts of the panel have experience with the ICC: Dr. Philippe Kirsch and Professor Cherif Bassiouni. Dr. Kirsch was the Chair of the Rome Conference of the ICC and is the former President of the Court. Professor Bassiouni was the Head of the Drafting Committee of the ICC Statute and one of the most renowned academics on the ICC. Both of them were also part of the UN panel that investigated the violence in Libya. This announcement comes after a Bahraini NGO sent a communication to the ICC on alleged crimes commited during the February- March revolts.
Elections for judges and other key officials will be held in December 2011. Given that the region comprises four states parties, it would be a monumental step to elect an Arab judge in the Court, particularly to respect geographic representation at the Court. However, since there is no “Arab regional group,” nationals from Arab states will have to be nominated through either the Asia or the Africa regions. At present, no Arab judge has been nominated.
It’s about time
The Rome Statute requires regional representation based on states parties. If more Arab states join the Court, there will be greater representation, participation and understanding in the region. Opening channels of discussion and exchange of information would be a great way (and possibly the best way) to overcome existing obstacles between the Court and the region.
The odds that Qatar or Kuwait will follow Jordan, Djibouti, Comores and Tunisia are still uncertain. Nevertheless, by opening clear dialogue and exchanging points of view with Court officials, Qatar is paving the way for greater cooperation with the ICC.
The commitment seems clear and promising.
Mariana Rodriguez-Pareja is a Communications expert and a human rights advocate with a special interest in international justice. Twitter handle: @maritaerrepe.