NGO Involvement in International Criminal Justice Institutions

NGOs not only monitor and report on human rights violations and provide an essential counterbalancing role to government narratives, but they contribute to the effective enforcement of international criminal justice in several important ways.

First, human rights NGOs have been closely involved with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, other internationalized criminal tribunals, and as discussed above the ICC, that have been set up to prosecute high level perpetrators for such international crimes as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Commissions of inquiry established either under Security Council or Human Rights Council authority (or the latter’s predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights) were extensively serviced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They applied human rights investigative methodology and relied considerably upon information from human rights and humanitarian NGOs to establish the scale, character, and responsibility for atrocities. Information from NGOs helped investigators to understand the social, political, and legal context in which serious violations were perpetrated, existing patterns of violations, to develop lines of enquiry, and follow situations closely, which proved critical for triggering international action to establish these bodies.63

Second, with regard to ICC process, it should be recalled that the prosecutor can initiate investigations on his/her own motion and gather information from any reliable source.64 Information from human rights NGOs figure significantly at several stages of international criminal prosecution. The Office of the Prosecutor cannot be everywhere at once and has limited resources itself to gather information in the many countries around the globe experiencing serious violence where there is a likelihood that atrocities are being committed. Not only that, but where there are incidents of serious violations, human rights NGOs are usually among the first to bear witness to the events or their aftermath. International criminal investigators may take months or years to appear at the scene, or may not ever be authorized to do so for a variety of political, jurisdictional, or logistical reasons. Human rights NGOs have proven themselves to be essential in gathering background information that could assist international criminal justice efforts, particularly where police, armed forces, other state agencies, or militia or rebel forces directly implicated in Rome Statute crimes cannot be trusted to gather potential evidence and transmit it to competent prosecuting authorities, or because law enforcement or the judiciary no longer functions, which is commonly the case in armed conflict situations.

Finally, to carry out its mandate, the ICC has to scan the world for situations that warrant preliminary investigation on account of their scale and gravity, and that in turn requires the ICC Prosecutor to keep abreast of information coming from UN human rights thematic and country special procedures much of which comes from international and locally based NGOs. By providing timely and independent monitoring, investigation and reporting on current human rights situations and on the status of the judiciary and domestic political institutions to address crimes under international law, NGOs remain essential to the world’s effort to combat impunity.

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