Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Rethinking our party's official position on the International Criminal Court

Conservative Home - July 17th 2008

The Conservative Party is officially opposed to the International Criminal Court. Britain is a member of the court, but we as a party have based our opposition to the court on the suspicion that it would be susceptible to malicious prosecutions and political manipulation. The governments of the United States, India, Russia and China have not signed the Rome statute establishing the ICC. The Conservatives are one of only two centre-right parties in the EU not to support the ICC, the other being the ODS, our sister party in the Czech Republic and future partner in a new European Parliament group.

I wrote for the Wall Street Journal on this subject six years ago to outline my concerns about the court. I can't say I've experienced a Damascene conversion in the meantime because international criminal jurisprudence is largely untried and untested, and many questions are still left to be answered. But in the past few years the court has begun its work and the politically motivated prosecutions that I and others feared have not come to pass. I don't agree with my colleague Dan Hannan, who thinks that the ICC is a threat to democracy, although I can see where he, as a sovereignist, is coming from.

What has really caused me to think about our party's opposition to the ICC is the court's recent indictment of President al-Bashir of Sudan for the alleged genocide in Darfur. Our party surely welcomes moves to bring this brutal dictator to justice, but such a position sits somewhat uneasily with out principled objection to the ICC. What was especially interesting to me was the way in which the United States - still resolutely opposed to the ICC - has effectively validated the court's mission by guiding this whole issue through the UN Security Council, even though Sudan is not a member of the ICC either.

I have already set out some of my ideas about the limitations of an ethical foreign policy on this site. Indeed, the ethics of the ICC's decision have been called into question by some, even within the UN, for risking the wrath of President Bashir and the subsequent further weakening of the UNAMID peacekeeping force, thereby exposing vulnerable civilians to further atrocities. We cannot allow our vital national interests to be compromised by the ICC or any other international body for that matter. But we should also recognise that perhaps the ICC has a role in supporting and furthering our national interests.

There is no doubt in my mind that international criminal justice is viable and appropriate for the most egregious crimes against humanity, for which impunity should never apply (although justice can also happen through the 'truth and reconciliation' model of disclosure and amnesty). Whether the ICC as currently constituted is the right forum to develop this field of jurisprudence remains to be seen. But I think we should take heart from the ICC's history so far and be prepared to change our party's position, subject of course to a tightening of the statutes relating to command responsibility and other areas of genuine concern. An international conference to review the Rome statute is scheduled to take place at some point after July 2009, when we may be in government, so it's time the party did some serious thinking on this issue. Are we saying unequivocally that Britain under a Conservative government will withdraw from the ICC?