Is the International Criminal Court fit for purpose?

Ex-president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, acquitted by the ICC after seven years in jail

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Supporters of Laurent Gbagbo take to the streets to celebrate his aquittal
(Image credit: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

The ex-president of the Ivory Coast has been acquitted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, raising further questions about the credibility and effectiveness of the Hague-based institution.

Laurent Gbagbo, who was charged in connection with violence following a disputed 2010 election that left 3,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, was the first former head of state to go on trial at the ICC.

The five-month stand-off between supporters of Gbagbo and his rival, Alassane Ouattara, saw some of the most brutal clashes in the country's history, and only came to an end after French-backed forces stormed the presidential palace.

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Yet despite claims by the prosecution that Gbagbo had used “all means” to cling to power, judges ruled they had failed to demonstrate “the existence of a 'common plan' to keep Gbagbo in power” which included crimes against civilians, or a “policy to attack a civilian population”.

After spending seven years in prison, “Gbagbo will follow in the footsteps of his wife Simone Gbagbo, who walked away from a 20-year jail term in Ivory Coast in August when she was granted amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in prison”, reports Al Jazeera.

Inside the court, the public gallery erupted in loud cheers, while outside supporters of Gbagbo gathered with champagne. In Ivory Coast’s economic capital, Abidjan, shirtless men ran through the streets toasting the former president.

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But victims of the civil war who had testified against him were devastated, with some worried about reprisals and others considering leaving the country. Human rights organisations described the ruling as “disastrous”.

Gbagbo’s acquittal has raised serious questions about the ICC, which has failed in its attempt to build successful cases against former DR Congo Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Since it came into being in 2002, ICC prosecutors have won only three war crimes convictions.

“Whenever a case involving mass atrocities essentially collapses at the ICC, it does damage to the perception of the court as a credible and effective institution of international justice,” Mark Kersten, author of Justice in Conflict, told the BBC.

“Many are concerned that the court is emerging as an institution where only rebels can be successfully prosecuted,” he said.

The Guardian says the 17-year-old ICC “has long been criticised for disproportionately going after Africans”, although the current prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian, has worked to change that, opening investigations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and the Ukraine.

The New York Times says “some analysts have criticised the overall approach of the court — a faraway entity that targets leaders and works largely through intermediaries who fail to gain the trust of locals”.

“On the other hand, the ruling demonstrates the judges' independence and impartiality and makes it harder to push the narrative, popular among those who fear the long arm of the ICC, that the court is a biased weapon of neo-colonial justice used purely to convict African leaders,” the BBC’s Anna Holligan says.

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