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Canada fights for international court after African, Russian departures

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephan Dion stands in the House of Commons during Question Period, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 14, 2016.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Even as the International Criminal Court suffered a blow from yet another country turning against it, Canada is continuing its fight to save it with a campaign of lobbying pressure and promised solutions.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion met critics and supporters of the controversial court on Wednesday in The Hague, trying to quell a rebellion that has led to three African countries withdrawing from the court. "We need more of the International Criminal Court, not less," Mr. Dion said in a speech to the annual assembly of the court's member states.

But as he arrived at the assembly, Russia was becoming the latest nation to attack the court, withdrawing its signature from the Rome treaty that created the body. Calling it "inefficient and one-sided" and noting that the court has spent more than $1-billion (U.S.) for only a handful of convictions, the Russian government announced on Wednesday that it would not ratify the treaty, despite its earlier support for the court.

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Russia also criticized the ICC for investigating alleged war crimes in Georgia in 2008 during Russia's military intervention in its southern neighbour.

Some analysts dismissed the Russian move as merely a symbolic protest with no practical consequences, since Moscow has never been a full member of the court. Russia has repeatedly vetoed any attempt to refer the Syrian war and other conflicts to the ICC for investigation.

But a supporter of the court, Amnesty International, said the Russian announcement was in fact a "huge blow to international justice."

Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty's branch in Russia, said Moscow had acted "with lightning speed" to withdraw its signature from the treaty, just hours after the ICC's prosecutor had reported that the Russian annexation of Crimea could amount to an international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

"Russia never demonstrated any genuine intention to ratify the Rome Statute, and this announcement appears as nothing but contempt for the aims of the ICC – putting an end to impunity for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – and is an affront to all victims of these appalling crimes," Mr. Nikitin said.

"The ICC is far from perfect, but this statement comes across as a disingenuous attempt by Russia to dodge responsibility for some of its failings."

The Trudeau government has taken a strong interest in defending the court, partly because Canada played an instrumental role in helping create it in the late 1990s.

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Mr. Dion toured three African countries last week, seeking support for a stronger court. And on Wednesday he met top officials of the court and several of its member states – including South Africa, the biggest country to announce its withdrawal.

The meetings were "constructive and positive" and could lead to dialogue that might persuade countries such as South Africa to remain in the court, according to Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for Mr. Dion.

South African Justice Minister Michael Masutha, in his meeting with Mr. Dion, cited the postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of dialogue that can solve difficult problems, Mr. Pickerill said.

"If there's a meaningful dialogue, I believe they [South Africa] would be a part of it. Remember, the process to withdraw is neither immediate nor irreversible. There are a lot of concerns, potential solutions or points of clarification that all sides would benefit from in a discussion."

In his speech, Mr. Dion acknowledged that Africa has legitimate concerns about the fact that some powers such as the United States are not members of the court.

"The world needs the court, but we must also be honest about the challenges that it is facing," Mr. Dion said.

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"Canada would like to see the Rome Statute eventually become universal, in the same way that the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war have become universal. … We must redouble our efforts to broaden support for the court by adding new members, especially in regions of the world where the court continues to be under-represented, such as in Asia and the Middle East."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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