The International Criminal Court’s action on Monday in issuing an arrest warrant for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is primarily of political and psychological significance at this point.
It further isolates the Libyan ruler and dramatizes the illegitimacy of his regime in the eyes of most of the world, but does not ensure he will appear in the dock at The Hague any time soon—if ever.
The move is not without controversy. While many would argue that the international community has a moral and legal obligation to make the colonel accountable for crimes against his own people, some experts maintain that the arrest warrants will only give him greater incentive to try to hang onto power. In short, they question the timing, not the action itself.
Colonel Qaddafi’s options are in any case limited. Either he wins his battle to stay in power (most unlikely), dies fighting, or seeks refuge in one of the few countries willing to give him sanctuary and to defy the will of the court. He has consistently maintained he will never leave Libya.
Arrest warrants also were issued for Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
The case is certainly the most important one to come before the court in its nine-year existence. Until Monday it had indicted 23 people, with proceedings under way against 21 of them. Arrest warrants had been issued for 14 persons and summonses to nine others. But so far not a single individual has been convicted by the court.
The current cases mostly relate to people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
The International Criminal Court is based in The Hague and is separate from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has been in existence longer and has a substantial record of convictions. The court cooperates with the UN but is not a UN organization.
So far 114 countries have joined in endorsing the court’s existence, and conspicuous among those that have not is the United States. This is due largely to pressure from the US Defense Department, concerned that American soldiers might be indicted for actions they undertake in conflict situations.
Israel and Sudan have joined the US in “unsigning” the accords establishing the court, meaning they have no intention of ever accepting its jurisdiction against their nationals. Altogether 43 United Nations members have not signed the accords and some of them, including China, have been critical of the court’s establishment.
Thirty-four countries including Russia have signed but not ratified the accords.
The court is empowered to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, but only in cases in which national courts fail to take action. The arrest warrant against Colonel Qaddafi and his two associates specify crimes against humanity—specifically murder and persecution in the period from February 15 to at least February 28.
The request for the warrants was submitted to the court by its chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at email@example.com.)