Should the ICC accept Western funding for its probe in Ukraine?

States offering to fund some ICC investigations while ignoring others could entrench a two-tier system of international justice.

A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha
A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 3, 2022. Last month more than two dozen countries urged the ICC to launch an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict [AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been asked – by forty-one states – to investigate allegations of mass atrocities committed in Ukraine. That’s no easy task. Nor is it cheap. In a show of unprecedented support for the ICC, a number of Western states have volunteered help to bolster the Court’s investigation. Should the ICC accept this support, or does it risk deepening the inequalities of international law and justice?

Investigating atrocities is difficult at the “best” of times when evidence is readily available, investigations are well funded, and violence has subsided. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine presents far from ideal conditions, and the ICC is far from flush. The Court is a cash-strapped institution because many states, including some of those now sending it voluntary donations, have long been insisting that its budget be restricted despite its increasing workload.

Soon after announcing the Court’s decision to open a war crimes investigation in Ukraine, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan asked the international community to offer support. A number of states answered Khan’s call. Among others, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France sent the ICC additional funds and/or their own legal authorities to support the probe in Ukraine. The level of support for the ICC’s investigation in Ukraine is impressive and could increase Ukrainians’ chances of finding justice. But many are asking: Will such support for accountability be offered to victims of mass atrocities outside of Europe?

In answering this question, it is important to distinguish self-serving “whataboutism” from the pleas of those asking: “why not us?”.

The former is a vacuous tool of distraction, used by governments such as those of Russia and Israel to deflect from allegations of war crimes they themselves are facing. They and their backers insist atrocities should not receive scrutiny from the ICC because justice has not been meted in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

The latter, as Ralph Wilde argued in a recent article for Opinio Juris, is a plea aiming not to deny justice in Ukraine, but to demand similar commitments elsewhere:

“Some are asking ‘what about’, not to justify Russia’s actions, but actually, the reverse… to ask why, when violations of international law of the same or a similar nature happen elsewhere, there is not the same response – a response they would welcome – by those who are now condemning Russia… Such people are asking: why does the international community not seem to care about us, as far as enforcing international law is concerned?”

Systemic racism does not end when the world of international justice begins; it influences the institutions of international relations and global justice. That includes the ICC, no matter how lofty and laudable its goals are. It is only natural to worry that the overwhelming support offered to the ICC in Ukraine represents another instance in which justice is made available to some people in some places some of the time and not to all.

Some earnest advocates of the ICC believe the Court should make a principled stand and reject earmarked contributions from states. Rebecca Hamilton, for example, maintains that while Ukraine is deserving of the attention it is getting, the notion that funds are available to the ICC only when there’s a crisis in Europe is “offensive”. She adds that if states “want to support the work of the Court, it’s got to be a court for everybody… We are seeing the structural racism of the international system playing out before our eyes.”

Others are demanding Western support translate into a sustained commitment to the ICC. In an open letter to the Court, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court stated that “[u]nprecedented support for the role of the ICC should be matched by government commitment to the sustainable funding needed to deliver justice in all situations that come before the Court.”

A sense of sobriety and caution is advisable for the ICC. States often use voluntary funding to control the priorities and objectives of international organisations. The Court – and Prosecutor Khan in particular – must protect the institution’s impartiality and independence. The ICC should likewise not assume that current state support will last. The prosecutor and his officers need only look to past experience to understand that states are fickle when it comes to supporting the ICC.

Following referrals of Darfur in 2005 and Libya in 2011 to the ICC by a largely unified UN Security Council, state support for the Court evaporated. Due to American ambivalence, the Security Council refused to provide the ICC with funding for either investigation. To this day, the ICC has never prosecuted anyone involved in atrocities in Libya. The Court’s first-ever trial of a perpetrator involved in atrocities in Darfur was the consequence not of any efforts of the Security Council or its member states, but Sudanese citizens rising up against the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir.

It is unlikely that the ICC prosecutor will reject the influx of support offered by Western states. After all, he asked for it. But it would be wise for the prosecutor to contemplate what impression an embrace of Western resources earmarked for Ukraine will make on victims and survivors in situations where the geopolitical interests of the West are less clear or even opposed to accountability. This is especially important after the prosecutor effectively dropped an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by US armed forces in Afghanistan in the wake of sanctions and coercive diplomacy from Washington.

As for states supporting the ICC’s investigation in Ukraine while nickel-and-diming the Court on its budget, they have an opportunity to avoid allegations of hypocrisy by agreeing to provide sustainable funding to the ICC. Not doing so now would risk entrenching a two-tier system of international justice.

Prosecutor Khan recently said that seizing “this moment collectively… is to the benefit not only of this office, or to the ICC, but to the whole international legal order”. That will only be true if this moment is not a harbinger of sustained inequality in international law. The challenge – to states and the ICC – is to make the unprecedented the precedented, the exceptional in Ukraine the norm for all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.