NI Blog: A glimpse into the International Criminal Court

Ronan Lavery QC
Ronan Lavery QC

Barrister Ronan Lavery QC writes on his experience with the International Criminal Court following his speech at the European Young Bar Association conference in Belfast.

I was delighted to be able to share with the European Young Bar Association Conference, and in particular Jerry Buting, my work as a criminal defence barrister at the International Criminal Court (ICC) last week. Through the documentary series in which he featured, Jerry has reinstated a pride for all criminal defence lawyers in their role as guardians of justice. As well as working as a barrister in Northern Ireland I am fortunate to work at the International Criminal Court and can offer a glimpse into the justice system at this level.

The International Criminal Court is the court of last resort for prosecution of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Lawyers are often asked: “How can you defend these terrible crimes?” At the ICC lawyers are asked: “How do you defend genocide?” That everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that there is a proper process to be maintained and protected are often difficult concepts to convey. Also, without the provision of defence lawyers to those who cannot afford it no criminals could be brought to trial whether at the ICC or locally. The political need to attract outwardly competent representation fluctuates. Now that The Troubles have passed, legal aid rates have dropped considerably - by over 70% in some cases. The political need is no longer there.

Despite its obvious noble and proper aims the ICC has been criticised because all of its prosecutions to date have emerged from conflicts in Africa. Understandably critics ask why prosecutions are not brought against leaders of western countries such as the UK which arguably has failed to hold an independent inquiry into complicity in overseas torture or was responsible for civilian deaths in Iraq and elsewhere. Simply, it is an unfortunate fact that Africans have been subjected to the most serious and horrific crimes by their own leaders and corruption and terror is rife. The majority of Africans welcome the prosecutions and support the Court.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has to be selective about prosecutions. Its very existence has to act as a deterrent to despots. A case is brought to send a message to the world that nobody can act with impunity and that no one is above the law. Defendants are normally high profile former leaders. As a defence barrister it is a fascinating place to work.

These conflicts raise many questions however. An ongoing issue for international justice is whether to offer a leader an amnesty to quickly resolve a conflict. Does Assad in Syria cling to power because he knows if he abdicates power he will be arrested and tried for war crimes? Are further, graver crimes committed as a result? Many argue that if Assad was extended an amnesty many lives would be saved and many thousands of refugees would not be scattered across Europe.

The cases I have worked on as Counsel at the ICC are not always directed against perpetrators of genocide or mass war crimes. In one particular case, a number of rebel leaders in Darfur were accused of attacking an African Union peace keeping camp, killing twelve peace keepers and stealing food, ammunition, and other equipment. It can easily be seen why the International Criminal Court should be seen to prosecute this crime. The number of deaths may be small but the significance and symbolism of the prosecution is clear. In the end two of the Defendants were killed in another battle which is unfortunate but not unexpected given their occupations.

Most local criminal lawyers would tell you that they have rarely gone home with a heavy heart because an innocent person was convicted of a crime he did not commit. Miscarriages of justice, like in “Making a Murderer” are thankfully exceptional in this jurisdiction but the excellence of our legal system must be protected.

Legal proceedings in many jurisdictions across the world can be slow and sometimes frustrating, but when miscarriages of justice occur, it reminds us of why we approach each case carefully with freshness and perseverance. The struggle to achieve justice continues for most lawyers as part of their daily routine - every minute of every working day, locally and internationally.

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