The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (2009)

Directors: Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Crimes against humanity are nothing new among the peoples of the Earth. It was in the 20th century, however, that the scale and rapidity of such crimes seemed to concentrate. The 1915 genocide of 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was dwarfed by the Nazi slaughter of perhaps as many as 20 million Jews, Romy, homosexuals, Slavs, and other “undesirables.” The scale of the massacre caused the world community to establish a court at Nuremburg to try these masterminds of crimes against humanity. They not only hoped to bring a measure of justice to the victims, but also to demonstrate that the world will stand together and hold even heads of state accountable for the evil they do, thereby preventing such evil from taking place.

It didn’t work. Millions more would suffer and die in the Soviet Union, Guatemala, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Bosnia, and on and on through the hyper-lethal mixture of human depravity and modern weaponry. In 1998, the heads of state of 140 countries and leaders of nongovernmental organizations interested in human rights decided they had to act. They met in Rome to consider setting up a permanent international criminal court to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity. After much discussion and negotiation, a treaty was overwhelmingly ratified to establish the ICC and allow it to step in, investigate, and prosecute cases that member nations cannot or will not bring on their own. In 2002, the ICC building in The Hague was finished and opened for business.

Directors Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy follow Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosector, and his team as they go about their work of bringing those most responsible for unspeakable atrocities around the world to their day of reckoning. Ocampo, who thought his prosecutions of the military leaders responsible for killing 20,000 civilians in his native Argentina was the highlight of his career, said that case was training for his work at the ICC.

The film covers four different cases the ICC has taken on. The first, and most important in terms of showing the ICC can make a difference, is in Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Christian militant group led by self-appointed messiah Joseph Kony, has been waging war against the Ugandan goverment for more than 20 years. The LRA abducts children to act as soldiers; part of their training is that they are made to kill someone in their own village—perhaps their own mother or father—to separate them from the community. ICC investigators moved rapidly, conducting 50 missions over 9 months, documenting 2,200 killings and 850 attacks. On July 8, 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Josephy Kony, Vincent Otti, and other top LRA commanders.

The ICC has no police force to bring in the suspects. It is up to the member states to reach consensus on trying a case and then to execute the warrants. The LRA, showing some nervousness about the power of the ICC, went on a village-to-village campaign, promising peace in return for a lifting of the warrants; Ocampo had to return to Uganda to make a case for keeping them in place. None of the suspects has been arrested, though at least two of the five wanted LRA leaders, including Otti, have since been killed.

Congo, the next, more dangerous focus, has been plagued with mass atrocities by different warring factions with shifting alliances. Alice Zago, an ICC investigator, said “Danger is part of our work.” The UPC Militia, specifically Thomas Lubango Dyilo, the leader of this most dangerous militia in Congo’s Ituri Province, was the first focus. Because of the danger inside the country, investigators built a case with documents and videotaped eyewitness accounts and evidence. “We can’t be at peace until they stand trial,” said one Congolese civilian. Thankfully, the government of Congo cooperated with the ICC and handed Dyilo over for prosecution.

Six decades of war in Colombia have made it one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Paramilitaries working with the Colombian army have killed thousands of civilians, and 30 members of the Congress are connected with paramilitaries. The ICC is keeping the case at the intensive analysis level—the step before investigation—to provide some pressure (“a looking- over-the-shoulder function”) on Colombia’s attorney general to do more. Unfortunately, the extradition to the United States of 14 paramilitary leaders on drug-trafficking charges has complicated the investigation.

American viewers of this documentary may not be very surprised to learn that Russia and China have not joined the ICC, but they may be more surprised to learn that the United States is also a holdout. In fact, the administration of George W. Bush actively worked against the ICC. John R. Bolton, briefly the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was not confirmed for permanent appointment, said he made it his special mission to get the court to wither and collapse. “Tangible American interests are at risk. Our main concern should be for the President,” he said, and to protect American citizens from being investigated by an international body. Bolton, speaking in the violently aggressive language for which Americans neocons have become known, obviously believes that might makes right.

According to David Scheffer, head of the U.S. delegation to Rome, the active hostility to the ICC, as well as calls to investigate American atrocities in Iraq that the ICC does not have the authority to investigate, have sounded “a death knell to our leadership in human rights.” The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals were things the United States was proudly part of. Ocampo says dismissively, “We represent interests that are much broader than the United States.” Good for him.

Darfur is the final conflict the film covers. Although Sudan is not a signer of the ICC treaty, the case was referred by the United Nations to the ICC. The court investigators easily established a pattern of genocide against non-Arabs by the Sudanese government and a paramilitary organization called Janjaweed. The ICC named the Minister of the Sudan, Ahmad Harun, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali-Kushayb as the most responsible for the genocide and issued arrest warrants in 2007. Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir defied the warrants, and he was slapped with one, too. This left it up to the UN Security Council to enforce them. With the United States, Russia, and China on the UN Security Council, what are the odds anything will be done? How scary a precedent must it be for these powerful nations to recognize that they might have limits imposed upon them, too?

Ben Ferencz, the prosecutor at Nuremburg, believes justice will prevail. By ending impunity—a word that comes up over and over in this film—he and the people who do this righteous work believe they can contribute to ending the violence. There are more than 120 ICC member countries that agree with them and that look to the ICC for justice in an unjust world. Although this is a very painful film to watch, it provides a well-organized lesson and wake-up call to audiences—particularly Americans—to open their hearts to the desperate plight of people around the world and hold the monsters who kill and subjugate them accountable. l

The Reckoning will be screened on May 9 at 12:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


  • Tinky spoke:
    2nd/05/2010 to 4:13 pm

    An eloquent summary, Marilyn. Let’s hope lots of people see this film (as you say, particularly our countrymen and -women)….

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/05/2010 to 5:30 pm

    Thanks, Tinky. This film aired on PBS last July. I hope this theatrical showing and, hopefully others, will draw substantial audiences. The fact that the U.S. does not belong to the ICC is a huge stain on us, one I’d like to see washed away.

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