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The ICC Gains Ground in the Arab World

By Denis Fitzgerald

At the close of their meeting last month in Riyadh, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose members consist of the wealthy oil-producing Arab monarchies, issued a final communiqué on the matter of Sudan and the international war-crimes charges brought against that nation's embattled leader, Omar al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Al-Bashir stands accused of perpetrating crimes against humanity in the Darfur region.

Critics argue that the ICC indictment has had little effect: his arrest warrant is more than two-years outstanding, and he has traveled largely unhindered since his indictment was first announced. Indeed, he traveled to China last week and has also visited Chad, Egypt, Kenya, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Still, ever since the indictment was issued two years ago, Arab leaders have frequently referred to it when explaining their opposition to the ICC. In stark contrast to that prior opposition, the June 12 GCC communiqué did not express solidarity with Sudan or reject the ICC’s accusations.

It was a quiet, but telling, omission.

This latest statement comes a few months after the Arab League endorsed the Libyan no-fly zone as well as a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an ICC investigation into Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his inner circle. (That investigation has concluded and arrest warrants have been issued for Gaddafi, his son and military intelligence chief.)

Arab countries have long been reluctant to join the ICC, pointing to the exclusion of “crimes of aggression” from the court’s jurisdiction—crimes of which Arab leaders frequently accuse Israel in its treatment of Palestinians. Arab states also often note that the United States and Israel are non-signatories to the ICC.

Yet it appears that Arab sentiment about the ICC may be well on its way to changing. Indeed, on June 24, Tunisia became the 116th member of the ICC. It is the first North African country to join and the fourth Arab League state (after Comoros, Djibouti and Jordan). Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country by population, has also signaled its intent to ratify the Rome Statute that created the court in 2002. Besides the four who have ratified that statute, 13 more Arab countries have signed-on, but not ratified.

“Things have changed now that the rule of law is progressively becoming a building-block for human-rights protection in several states of our region,” Lebanese MP Ghassan Mukhaiber said in a statement to the Coalition for the International Criminal Court after Tunisia's accession. Mukhaiber, one of the leading advocates for the ICC in the region, also argued at a May conference in Qatar that a united legal stance puts more pressure on Israel, and shows that Arab leaders are responding to their citizens' demands for accountability and justice.

It’s still early days yet, but the GCC statement and Tunisia’s accession to the Rome Statute are sure signs of a shift in sentiment in the Arab world towards the ICC. These recent developments further the legitimacy of an international court in its efforts to prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

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Denis Fitzgerald is a New York-based freelance journalist. 

[Photo Courtesy of ICC-CPI]

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