Visiting the International Criminal Court in The Hague, it is immediately apparent how unique an institution it is.
I have visited the United Nations headquarters in New York many times, so it was not the first time I was surrounded by people from a vast spectrum of nations. A quick look at people in the building and a brief listen to the variety of languages, and it immediately hits you how international the ICC is (and at least in the lobby and cafeteria, speakers of French, Dutch and other languages appeared to significantly outnumber those of English).
But the ICC is also different.
For one thing, it is brand new, unlike the decades-old UN building.
The judges, the prosecution and the other officials only moved into their permanent building in December (they were in a temporary space since the court opened in 2002), so when I visited in February they had just finished unpacking.
The newness, to the tune of €204 million, of the six-building complex that houses 1,200 workplaces is expressed by its sophistication, openness, high level of electronic networking and, most of all, its advanced security arrangements.
Looking out at the grandiose complex from the street, you see an open book, a transparent institution welcoming the world for a visit.
Yet, looking from the inside out, suddenly you notice that, in addition to the security checkpoint, there is a moat to stop and slow down intruders as well as high walls – all cleverly camouflaged and woven into the fabric of the landscape when you are looking from the outside.
That is only the start of the complex’s creativity.
It was designed to facilitate separate entrance for witnesses whose identity must be shielded to protect them from murder and intimidation.
That means not only do they arrive without being seen by defendants and the public, but they have a separate waiting room and separate bathroom facilities, and their separate waiting room area leads into the courtrooms’ witness boxes where their appearance is shielded.
These security concerns are not very real.
According to the ICC prosecution, witnesses have been intimidated or murdered, most notably in the Kenya cases.
Once you get past the guard station, the moat and the high walls, you enter a large lobby with an exhibit detailing high points of the ICC’s work since its 2002 founding. The only other publicly accessible areas are a medium-size cafeteria and the two main courtrooms.
The courtrooms are as big as or even bigger than the largest courtroom at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, and they have two levels. There is a special level for the press where work stations let you press any number of buttons to get a running translation in a range of languages.
There is a vast apparatus of offices for the several arms of the court, the prosecutors and other arms of the ICC – all requiring fancy security tags to get past the locked revolving entrance doors.
Beyond those doors are typical- looking modern office spaces – my favorite part of which was an office nicknamed “the Room of Requirement” (for Harry Potter fans).
The officials of the ICC come from a wide range of countries. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is a good example, hailing from Gambia.
They generally come not only highly credentialed and with a broad range of international experience, but with a strong sense of idealism that they work and exist to confront, and where possible, fix the world’s evils and injustices.
The enormous difficulties associated with that mission jumped out at me during my visit.
I already knew of the intense pressure on the court to indict defendants in countries outside Africa – non-Africans have been investigated, but none has been indicted – but I ran into the personal face of the ICC’s dilemma during my visit.
An official group of dozens of Nigerians was visiting, and in speaking to one of them, I heard an up-close and emotional version of the critique of the ICC that until now I have seen from afar, in the headlines.
The Nigerian man was somewhat impressed with the building and the goals of the institution, but was very sarcastic about his expectations for its success and about whether it truly represented justice.
He complained that the ICC only investigates Africans and that the largest, most militarily involved country in the world, the US, has not even bothered to join, so that it is mostly beyond ICC jurisdiction.
He questioned why Africans should cooperate with an institution focused on them only, that ignores the US and massive conflicts such as in Syria.
I felt for this man and also for the ICC.
The ICC has around 125 member states, but it has no power to force the other 70 or so to join.
So the criticism is valid, but it is not something that the ICC itself can remedy.
ICC officials are cognizant of the dangerous and complex politics they confront, and, as they answered my questions, they bent over backward to anticipate how all sides of a case might misconstrue their responses.
Leaving an institution that only entered into permanent quarters a few months earlier, after 10 years of transitory existence, all that was clear is that the ICC will continue to be a global institution to be reckoned with.
Whether it will be limited to dealing with select disputes from weaker countries and ignored by the world’s bigger powers and most rogue nations, and thus fail to meet its higher aspirations, is a question that will likely take at east another 10 years to answer.