"The International Criminal Court prosecutes the most serious crimes of all"
Switzerland has ratified amendments to the Rome Statute designed to enable the International Criminal Court (ICC) to punish the use of biological weapons, blinding laser weapons and certain fragmentation weapons as war crimes. Ambassador Corinne Cicéron Bühler, Director of the Directorate of International Law, explains why Switzerland has deposited its instrument of ratification and why the work of the ICC is important – not just for people in war-torn areas.
Ambassador Corinne Cicéron Bühler, Director of the Directorate of International Law, explains why the work of the ICC is important – and not just for people in war-torn areas. © Keystone
Corinne Cicéron Bühler, many people have heard of the International Criminal Court, but only a few know what it actually does. What is the ICC’s remit as an international institution?
Corinne Cicéron Bühler: The International Criminal Court – or ICC for short – was established in 1998 and is now an important part of our rules-based international order. The ICC prosecutes only the gravest of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.
Why these crimes specifically?
Because they threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world. However, the ICC can only try individuals and not whole countries. It is currently conducting 21 criminal investigations and proceedings all over the world.
Does this mean that the ICC is an international institution with the ability to intervene in Swiss internal affairs?
No, the ICC cannot influence Swiss legislation or policy in any way. Clear restrictions are placed on the ICC in the international legal instrument on which its remit is based – the Rome Statute. Firstly, the ICC doesn’t deal with just any crimes, but specifically with the most serious crimes of all: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. These are defined in the Rome Statute in a way that is not open to interpretation.
Secondly, the national authorities remain primarily responsible for prosecuting these crimes. This too is clearly set out in the Rome Statute. The ICC may only initiate investigations against individuals in cases where the justice system of the country in question is unwilling or unable to do so. Switzerland is both willing and able to prosecute these serious crimes of its own accord. We have an independent, well-functioning justice system. These crimes are governed by our Criminal Code and Military Criminal Code, and are thus investigated and tried by our own authorities.
Switzerland has ratified these amendments to the Rome Statute even though it consistently prosecutes crimes of this nature anyway. Why have we done so when the use of these weapons has been a punishable offence under Swiss law since 2011?
By ratifying these amendments, we are seeking to send out a signal. It is true that the use of these types of weapons has been punishable by law in Switzerland as a war crime since 2011. Moreover, Switzerland is both willing and able to investigate a suspected crime of this nature.
By ratifying the amendments to the Rome Statute, we are sending out a signal that the deployment of these weapons should also be prosecuted as a war crime elsewhere, beyond Switzerland's borders. By taking this step, we are encouraging other states to ratify the amendments and to investigate and prosecute these crimes. As an ICC member state, Switzerland would like to strengthen the organisation and signal the importance of its work internationally.
Switzerland has supported the ICC from the very beginning. Why is the Criminal Court important to Switzerland as an international institution?
The ICC is the culmination of decades of efforts to prosecute the gravest of crimes, such as those we experienced during the Second World War, and thus prevent them from happening again. By prosecuting such crimes, the Criminal Court helps enforce international humanitarian law and human rights. Perpetrators should not go unpunished, and victims should be given justice. Without this, lasting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence are not possible.
So, the ICC ultimately contributes to stability and prosperity. Commitment to international humanitarian law has and always will be a major part of Switzerland’s foreign policy. That’s why we advocate for a strong, effective Criminal Court. Switzerland focuses its efforts on strengthening the Rome Statute in a way that enables the Criminal Court to work efficiently and effectively, and, above all, facilitates cooperation among the member states and between them and the ICC.
How exactly does Switzerland contribute to strengthening the ICC?
Last year, for example, Switzerland submitted a proposal that, from now on, the ICC should be able to prosecute the intentional starvation of civilians as a war crime, also when committed in the context of civil war. Intentionally starving civilians as a method of warfare is a major problem today. The majority of the more than 800 million people who suffer from hunger every day live in conflict zones. This makes it all the more important that the intentional starvation of the civilian population be prosecuted as a war crime, even when committed during internal armed conflict. This significant amendment to the Rome Statute was adopted unanimously by the states parties to the ICC in December 2019.
In recent years, Switzerland has additionally called for the development of indicators that would allow the Court’s performance to be measured and thus made improvable. Switzerland also campaigns to ensure that only the best and most-qualified officials are nominated for election to key positions within the ICC. At the end of the day, whether or not the ICC can successfully perform its work also depends on the 123 member states.
That’s why we’d like to see even more countries accede to the Rome Statute. It is essential that the member states cooperate with the Criminal Court. Just recently, Switzerland responded to measures taken against the Criminal Court by voicing its support for the ICC in unambiguous terms and joining with another 66 states to send out a clear signal of their commitment to the institution.
Swiss foreign policy is known for its humanitarian tradition. What makes the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) important specifically with regard to international humanitarian law?
International humanitarian law is a long-standing tradition in Switzerland – dating back to 1864, when the Federal Council had the first Geneva Convention drawn up. In armed conflicts, international humanitarian law restricts the means and methods of warfare and protects persons who are not or no longer involved in the hostilities. These rules save lives every day and reduce suffering in times of war.
In spite of the rules and prohibitions, international humanitarian law is repeatedly violated and war crimes are still being committed. Often with dramatic consequences for those affected. Ultimately, prohibitions can only act as a deterrent if violations against them are resolutely prosecuted. This awareness is particularly important in the context of international humanitarian law, where we are dealing with matters of life and death. With its remit to prosecute these war crimes in cases where the national authorities fail to do so, the ICC closes the gap of impunity.
In short, the greater the chance of being held accountable for war crimes, the greater the deterrent and preventive effect. Through its commitment to the International Criminal Court, Switzerland is therefore making an important contribution to the enforcement of international humanitarian law.