Is Czech Republic turning its back on international justice?


In this week's Talking Point, Rob Cameron examines why the Czech Republic - alone in the European Union and virtually alone in the whole of continental Europe - has failed to ratify the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court.

This week the International Criminal Court (ICC) will begin hearing evidence of the alleged war crimes in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The ICC was established in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. With some 200,000 people killed over the last four years, and more than two million forced to flee their homes, Darfur is one of the world's most horrific and intractable conflicts. The case is being presented to the ICC because prosecutors claim Sudan's judicial system is incapable of trying suspects in the hundreds of massacres that have taken place in Darfur - suspects who are closely associated with the Sudanese regime.

What, you ask, does all this have to do with the Czech Republic? Well, nothing. Absolutely nothing in fact. 104 countries around the world have now ratified the Rome Statute, which established the ICC. They include every member of the European Union, with one notable exception.

The Czech Republic signed up to the ICC in 1999. But in 2001, parliament voted against ratification. Many MPs - including those belonging to the centre-right Civic Democrats, who are now the dominant party in government - expressing concern that if the country ratified the treaty, the Czech state would be unable to protect its citizens.

In the years that followed, the issue faded from the public consciousness. That was until late January, when four NGOs issued a call criticising the Czech Republic for failing to meet its international commitments. One of those NGOs was the League of Human Rights. Jan Kratochvil is one of the League's lawyers:

"It's not primarily about punishing perpetrators of crimes in the Czech Republic. It was established to try the perpetrators of the worst crimes that are committed in the world today, that is crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. These crimes are not perpetrated in the Czech Republic, but there are many parts of the world where there are thousands of victims of these crimes that need justice. It's not about trying Czech citizens. It's about trying the perpetrators of the worst crimes that would not otherwise be tried. It can try only those people who are not tried by their own country, so it's not meant for to try people from countries with functioning criminal justice systems."

Cyril Svoboda
The four NGOs said the Czech government - a coalition of Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens - was showing its indifference to the world's most serious crimes. That criticism was accepted even by some within the government. Cyril Svoboda, a former Christian Democrat foreign minister and now head of the government's Legislative Council, said the failure to ratify the treaty was a sign of Czech provincialism. He promised to discuss the matter with the Justice Minister, a member of the Civic Democrats.

That was in late January. So what's changed since then? I called Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova to find out.

"The reason why the Treaty wasn't ratified was political. So now the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg has asked for an analysis to decide what to do, because we know that it's not good for the image of the Czech Republic."

Precisely. It's a bit embarrassing isn't it? This hole in the middle of Europe - the only country, pretty much, in Europe that hasn't ratified the treaty on the ICC - the Czechs.

"Yes, that's right. As I said, we know this. It's not good for the image of the Czech Republic, but we are sure that we have to do something with it, maybe also in connection with our presidency of the European Union. So we know we have to solve the situation and we are going to solve it."

When do you think the Czech Republic will ratify the ICC?

"I cannot say. You know, the decision of the government is necessary for it, and then the decision of the parliament. Because it's a presidential treaty, so the parliament has to decide. I am not the person who can speak for the parliament. It's a political question."

But is this issue really a high priority for the Czech government? Jan Kratochvil from the League of Human Rights is not convinced.

"Well, it's hard to tell. We hope that something is being done, and we think we can support this initiative. There was supposed to be a seminar in the parliament, for MPs, about the ICC, organised by the Foreign Ministry. It was cancelled. Now maybe it will be held, they say in May. They cite various reasons for it being cancelled, and we still hope that it will be held in May. But what we hope more is that they will actually give the treaty to the parliament for ratification, because it must be done by government and then it goes to the parliament."

The Czech Republic is, of course, not alone in failing to ratify the ICC. The International Criminal Court continues to face heavy opposition from the United States, China, India and Israel. The Civic Democrats - the dominant force in the centre-right coalition - are perhaps the most pro-American party on the Czech political scene, so it's no surprise that on this issue they're closer to Washington than the EU. But they are coming under pressure from their coalition partners to move towards ICC ratification. Ondrej Liska is the deputy chairman of the Green Party.

"It is very important. We have discussed it a few weeks ago. We want to initiate a debate on this and support the ratification process, because we believe this contributes to international justice. We also know why the United States are hesitating to ratify this, but I believe we should cooperate on this level as much as possible to prevent in the future situations that end up with pre-emptive attacks, violating human rights and international insecurity. We believe in the broader concept of security and a legal framework for this is definitely needed."

I was speaking to Ondrej at a public discussion on foreign policy priorities for the Czech Republic in 2007. In two hours, the ICC was not mentioned once. Czech politicians are more concerned with issues such as a decision to let America build a radar station in the Brdy hills as part of its missile defence shield, or how or whether to revive the EU Constitution, as the Czech Republic gets ready to preside over the EU in 2009. Ratifying the International Criminal Court, in other words, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But Jan Kratochvil, and many other Czech activists who believe in the power of international justice, has not given up hope.

"We agree with the words of Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, who said the International Criminal Court is the best chance humankind ever had to end the culture of impunity for the perpetrators of the worst crimes ever. And we think that it's important to support this chance, and not to let it fail. And by ratifying the Rome Statute, we will support the ICC and make it stronger."