On July 17, the world celebrates International Justice Day. It is an important day for me as an Armenian, an American, and a world citizen. On this day in 1998, the international community adopted the Rome Statute, which in turn created the International Criminal Court (ICC). By adopting the Rome Statute and with the eventual ratification of the Rome Statute by 122 countries around the world, the international community demonstrated its commitment to end impunity for the worst of all crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—in the 21st century.
The International Criminal Court is the first permanent international body that prosecutes individuals for these crimes. It has been a concept and dream for many international law activists and scholars since Nuremberg, but only became a reality in July 2002 after it secured the required 60 ratifications. I witnessed its creation. There at the United Nations, in a single ceremony, I watched the world transform from one that repeatedly permitted impunity to one where these crimes are no longer tolerated or forgotten. This wasn’t just a meaningful moment of world history to observe as a law student enamored with international law; this was a dream that became a reality for me, an Armenian refugee from Baku, Azerbaijan, who escaped ethnic cleansing at 11 years old.
The worst crime of my grandfather’s childhood—the Armenian Genocide with its 1.5 million Armenians dead—went unpunished. The crimes of my childhood—the Sumgait, Kirovabad, Maraga, and Baku massacres—went unnoticed. While taking notes and typing reports inside the smoky halls of the United Nations in New York, I would often smile to myself, for I was witnessing an historic event unfold around me. I was the living, breathing reason why these amazing scholars, lawyers, historians, and activists had worked so tirelessly for decades to make the Court a reality. And just like that, it was created. A year later, I was one of the first Americans to clerk at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
It was a bittersweet experience. The Court only has jurisdiction moving forward from its creation, and cannot prosecute crimes that happened before July 2002. Setting aside the territorial jurisdiction question of the Rome Statute, the crimes that were committed against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire cannot be brought forth, not only because the individuals responsible are no longer alive, but because it happened so long ago. Similarly, the Azeri atrocities against Armenians in my home city of Baku are also beyond the reach of the Court.
Despite this, I was thrilled with the Court’s structure, mandate, and spirit. My friend and long-time mentor, John Washburn of the American NGO Coalition for the ICC (AMICC), often says that the Court is “a memorial in action,” a commemorative international body to honor the victims of past crimes committed to international justice.
The ICC is the court of last resort. It must defer to national proceedings unless the national judicial system is unable or unwilling to prosecute the crime. When it has jurisdiction, the Court brings attention to victims worldwide who suffer now as the Armenians did during the genocide by the Turks. The Court achieves justice masterfully, not in a vacuum of one case or one situation. It approaches a situation with the future of the affected victims and nations in mind. By singling out the ultimately responsible individuals, the Court deals powerfully with genocide without having to accuse an entire people. Charges of genocide have too often been rebutted by claims that they are attempts to establish collective guilt. The Court’s existence affirms that the guilt of the leader and policymaker is different in kind from the guilt of the followers.
The Court also serves as a truth-telling body. Despite the lapse of time, the agony of the Armenian Genocide continues to be felt by the international Armenian community, perpetuated by the denial and history-erasing measures taken by the current Turkish government. The truth of the Armenian Genocide has never been told and acknowledged in a complete and authoritative way; an ICC trial does that on behalf of the international community that created it.
On this day of International Justice I am happy I contributed, if only minutely, to the justice that the International Criminal Court delivers for victims of mass atrocities worldwide. I’m proud to be working with the AMICC in supporting the Court’s efforts and promoting the U.S.-ICC relationship. I call on my fellow Americans to educate, inform, and advocate for the ICC in their communities with AMICC’s help, and to reach out to their Congressmen and ask them to support the growing relationship between the U.S. and ICC.
Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte is the author of Nowhere: A Story of Exile.