International Criminal Justice: The State of Play Conference

Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue
Simon Fraser University
Vancouver, Canada
March 19-20, 2015

The International Criminal Justice: The State of Play Conference was co-sponsored by The Simons Foundation and the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University, and chaired by The Hon. Louise Arbour, C.C., G.O.C., in her position as the 2014-15 Simons Visiting Chair in Dialogue in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University.

Fifteen years after the passage of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, we stand at a series of crossroads. Support for personal criminal responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes remains robust in many parts of the world, yet the ICC faces considerable obstacles and universal jurisdiction of national courts is in a period of retrenchment. Accountability mechanisms in peace agreements are hard to come by. The ICC has faced sustained criticism from African leaders for its alleged selectivity, and elsewhere as well for its inability to address alleged violations by major powers, leaving the court open to the accusation that it only dispenses justice on weaker states. Even Security Council referrals, once thought to enhance the reach of the Court, are proving problematic. Along with the criticisms of the likes of Henry Kissinger attacking the principle of universal jurisdiction of national courts, major powers (notably China) have made repeated claims that the very notion of universal jurisdiction represents a “Western” imposition on non-Western peoples – effectively an act of 21st century imperialism. Finally, the simultaneous pursuit of peace and justice is proving more elusive than once thought.

And yet, the struggle for enhanced accountability continues in a variety of settings, from Spain (addressing military rule in Latin America and the Franco era), to Belgium, France and Canada (where The Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act precedes the establishment of the ICC). Avenues have opened up for civil society actors as well as jurists to seek justice for crimes that have otherwise gone unpunished by states either unwilling or too weak to enforce their own laws. This makes it possible for groups as varied as indigenous peoples in Canada and victims of violence in Guatemala to challenge traditional jurisdictional limits in their efforts to gain redress for their grievances. We have compelling evidence from Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere that the criminal prosecutions that have resulted from these pressures have significantly enhanced democratic practice and civil society in regions with long histories of political violence and authoritarian rule. Accountability for international crimes and its cognates thus create a complex alchemy. It became a new basis upon which global actors and international organizations have sought to enact the promise of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it has also allowed local actors in a variety of contexts to seek new ways of addressing pressing concerns.

The goal of this conference was to assess the current state of international criminal justice through a close examination of the workings of International Criminal Court, related tribunals and national courts exercising both their domestic and universal jurisdiction. These forms of accountability were considered through a series of lenses, from those of legal practitioners, scholars, international actors and activists who seek to utilize or challenge the viability of the concept. In this sense, the workshop was both about legal theory and the day-to-day workings of the law in a variety of contexts and jurisdictions.

Most importantly, the goal was not simply to understand how international criminal justice has evolved since the creation of the ICC. The conference aimed to offer a vision of the future path for this concept, and its viability in a global context in which state sponsored violence and the potency of non-state actors remain a significant challenge to accountability and justice. It also sought to explore its viability in a series of local contexts in which global networks of activists, jurists, and scholars continue to press the case for accountability: local efforts to prosecute former military and government officials in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Guatemala and elsewhere for human rights violations dating to the 1960s remain unabated. Meanwhile, general amnesties are no longer the standard fare of negotiated peace agreements while realistic accountability measures are difficult to enact, and even more so to implement.

CLICK HERE to view the International Criminal Justice: The State of Play Conference report and see the files below for more information.