International Law

Louise Arbour on ICC and R2P

By Matthew Waxman
Sunday, October 27, 2013, 8:46 AM

Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group, delivered a very powerful critique last week of existing doctrines and frameworks for promoting international justice, humanitarian protection, and rule of law. Her tough assessment of the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine are especially noteworthy because Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, previously served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and as Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

Regarding the ICC, Arbour offers a particularly tough appraisal of recent UN Security Council referrals:  “Two referrals by the Security Council to the ICC, in the cases of Darfur and Libya, respectively, have done very little to enhance the standing and the credibility of the ICC, let alone contribute to peace and reconciliation in their respective regions.”  While calling passionately for continued commitment to ending impunity, she notes that “recent events – whether the Security Council referrals, the difficulty that the Court faces in Africa, or its balancing act in the Colombia case – appear to challenge the assumption underlying the international justice enterprise: that holding military and political leaders accountable for war crimes would actually contribute to peace, by deterring such conduct in the future and by encouraging national reconciliation.”  Arbour urges that neither peace nor justice can be achieved in crises like Syria’s unless advocates of each are willing to make some pragmatic compromises as part of coherent strategies.

Regarding R2P, Arbour depicts the premature celebration by some advocates for the doctrine’s application in Libya, and acknowledges the reality that it has become hostage to dysfunctional Security Council and national politics.  Paralysis in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria exposes the severe limits of R2P and shows that the legacy from Libya for the doctrine is a mixed one at best.  (At one later point, Arbour takes a swipe at drone strikes, calling them part of “military vigilantism” and expressing concern about an “increasing appeal to the use of force in the pursuit of peace,” but to me the recent (in)action with regard to Syria by the United States and some allies undercuts this claim).

Arbour ends on a more positive note, that the goals of international justice and conflict resolution are not futile; some of these problems are fixable.  She emphasizes, though, that policy improvement can’t be achieved without acknowledging the severe shortcoming of current approaches.  The speech is well worth listening to.