ICC staves off Africa-led rebellion, sets sights on new HQ

The Hague (AFP) - The International Criminal Court staved off a veiled African-led threat to quit the world's only permanent war crimes court, but experts say that has come at the expense of justice for the victims of mass atrocities.

Tensions flared last week at the nine-day Assembly of States Parties (ASP) over Kenya, which is embroiled in a bitter tussle with the ICC over efforts to prosecute its two top leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.

As delegates pack their bags, the court is now turning its attention to moving into its new permanent premises on the other side of The Hague, only steps away from the detention cells where defendants are held.

"This meeting... has left a lot of people disappointed," said Janet Anderson, writing on the Justice Hub website.

"Much of the debate and discussion was about efforts by the Kenyan delegation to get the ASP to discuss and agree on a rule concerning using witness testimony," she said.

"Shouldn't the meeting be about more than that, about the victims who need justice and about getting the court to run well?" she asked.

The Kenyatta case collapsed late last year, and Kenya this week renewed calls to drop charges against Ruto stemming from 2007-08 post-election violence, which left some 1,200 people dead.

In a tense week at the ICC annual conference, the African Union also accused the ICC of unfairly targeting the continent, warning that Africa's "common resolve should not be tested."

Delegates eventually introduced an 11th-hour agreement on Thursday reaffirming the rule, but experts said Kenya's efforts dominated the conversation to the detriment of other issues, particularly victims of mass atrocity crimes.

The Coalition for the ICC said the days of brinkmanship had "set a dangerous precedent for the court's independence".

"Using unfounded accusations of an anti-Africa bias at the ICC and threats to withdraw from the Rome Statute, the Kenyan government has sought to gain concessions from this assembly to put pressure on the decision-making of independent ICC judges," said the coalition's William Pace.

- 'Obscure the real victims' -

Ruto is accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the post-election violence, the worst unrest since independence in 1963.

Nairobi lobbied intensely for the assembly to publicly restate a rule that recanted testimonies cannot be used in cases which are already before the courts.

The ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been allowed by judges to use such testimonies in the case against Ruto -- a ruling which his lawyers are currently appealing.

"We should not be surprised by the efforts we've seen, particularly by the government of Kenya, to discredit the court's work and to obscure the real victims -- thousands of Kenyans who have yet to see any justice," Human Rights Watch senior legal expert Elizabeth Evenson said.

"The saddest part of this ordeal... #Kenya convincing the world problem was (with the) #ICC while justice for #PEV (post election violence) became irrelevant," international law expert Mark Kersten added in a tweet.

Officials from the court, which began work in 2002, are now trying to put the tensions behind them.

On November 12 court officials formally received their new premises overlooking the dunes and the North Sea in a seaside suburb of the Hague.

"We can now concentrate on getting settled in," an ICC official said.

The first cases will be heard in January -- with the much-anticipated trial of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, due to open on January 28.

Built at a cost of 206 million euros ($218 million) and paid for by state parties, the building "is a symbol of the permanency of the court and state parties' commitment to the court," ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said.

However, experts have warned the new building will be merely for show if member states refuse to continue investing in the ICC.

"If the court doesn't have the resources it needs to conduct investigations and make it accessible in a way for all those (victims) who will never see the inside... a new building will mean very little," Evenson said.