The Reckoning: The Battle For The International Criminal Court

The Reckoning: The Battle For The International Criminal Court


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

The International Criminal Court brings to trial those who commit large-scale political crimes, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This documentary, nominated for the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2009, takes a look at how the ICC came into being and some of the cases it has taken on.

Beginning with newsreel footage from the end of the Second World War and an interview with Ben Ferencz who, at the age of 27 found himself prosecuting war criminals at Nuremburg, we see how the idea was born for an international court which would deal with genocide, showing that no one was immune, even heads of state.

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The second half of the 20th century saw continuing genocide, in Guatemala, Cambodia, Kurdistan, etc. It was in Rome, 1998, that a conference finally brought together sufficient heads of state to set the wheels in motion. There were concerns about sovereignty from the start, but the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of setting up the court, a moment described here as “an explosion of joy”.

It was 2002 when the court, ratified by 68 states, was ready to begin its work. Its first Prosecutor, elected unopposed, was Argentinian Luis Moreno-Ocampo who, in a landmark case, had prosecuted members of the Junta, the first case of its kind since Nuremburg.

Interviews with Ocampo, and with two Deputy Prosecutors, Christine Chung and Fatou Bensouda introduce us to the work of the court. Uganda, Congo, Colombia and finally Darfur are the cases explored here. Chung explains how it is critical for the investigators to visit the country, meeting potential witnesses, often putting themselves in danger in the process.

This is no talking heads documentary. Cameras take us into the displacement camps of Uganda, where local survivors talk of their babies beaten to death. In Congo there are interviews with former child soldiers and sex slaves. There are video scenes of human remains in burnt out houses, where the crying of witnesses on the soundtrack is possibly the most harrowing element. If you find this depressing, wait until you hear about the political opposition.

The ICC is a court of last resort. It can intervene when states are not dealing with crimes themselves. Three years after its inauguration, the court issued its first arrest warrants, against the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, responsible, amongst other things, for the mutilation of abducted children. But a caption tells us: “In the following year no arrests were made.” The court has no police force and has to rely on the network of its member states.

Lack of international support is a real problem. The United States, Russia and China have never signed up, and under the Bush administration the US was actively opposed to the ICC. Bush apparently called for “an ideological jihad” against it (though surely not in his own words) and pressured many states not to back it.

So what can the ICC hope to achieve? The process seems to be: Sift out the most serious cases from the thousands they are asked to take on, investigate, put pressure on the government, then get back in there to monitor the situation. In countries like Colombia, with high-level government corruption, this does seem to have some effect. In Uganda the Lord's Resistance Army leaders admit they are afraid of being handed over to the court and are failing in their propaganda campaign against it. Most encouraging is the fact that these investigations bring more local debate about justice.

There are some tense courtroom moments when it looks as if criminals may have to be set free on legal technicalities. I also found the scenes in the United Nations compelling. On Darfur, Sudan is not a member state, so a UN Security Council referral is needed before the ICC can proceed. Ocampo (not a popular man in the US) is seen putting a very forceful case.

Is this just a film destined to preach to the converted? And is it maybe too one sided in its presentation of the US opposition? Sadly, this is not going to appeal to most people as an evening’s entertainment, though it puts its ideas across very clearly. In my own investigation I found that those Americans strongly opposed to the ICC tend to regard such activities as waterboarding as necessary to national security, though I can’t claim to have looked at a wide sample. Released early this year, the film was unable to include any mention of the Obama administration. The President has recently stated his intention to cooperate with the court, so there is a message of hope.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2009
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A battle of monumental proportions unfolds as International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo faces down warlords, genocidal dictators and world superpowers in bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice.
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Director: Pamela Yates

Writer: Peter Kinoy, Paco de Onís, Pamela Yates

Year: 2009

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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