False Report of Qaddafi's Son's Arrest Hurts ICC, Supposedly

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 3:18 PM EDT

After the exciting news from International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo that Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam had been arrested, and the subsequent exciting-but-in-a-different-way news that he had actually NOT been arrested, the ICC is under fire. "It doesn't say very much, I'm afraid as someone who supports the international criminal court, for the credibility of that organisation that it should have apparently endorsed the information that the son had been taken into custody," analysts are saying. Or, "this is a terrible blow to the ICC’s credibility."

Here's my professional analysis, as a human rights reporter/ICC-feature writer/watcher: Meh.

Back in May, Moreno-Ocampo announced that he was requesting that the ICC issue arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif, and the head of military intelligence. In June, the warrants came through, making the three Libyans officially wanted for crimes against humanity for the systematic and widespread attack of civilians. At the time, Moreno-Ocampo was saying that Libyans should and could and, he believed, would make the arrests themselves. His announcement Monday that they'd arrested Saif was based on info from confidential sources, he told Reuters. Confidential sources who were evidently wrong.

It's true that the ICC exists to charge and prosecute war criminals, and that their charges are only as good as the reliable information they can get. But this mistake didn't happen in a courtroom or a legal brief. The efforts of hundreds of ICC researchers, some of whom I've met, go into those. It's not stunning that some misinformation was conveyed to Moreno-Ocampo in the midst of the shitshow that is revolution, going down in a shitshow like Libya. Certainly he wouldn't have announced it if he weren't pretty damn sure; he appears to not be responding to requests for comment about exactly how the mixup happened; he shouldn't have announced it in the heat of that moment, no doubt. I imagine there's a lot of unhappy scrambling going on in that drab International Criminal Court building since Saif started strolling around in front of the cameras. But this is not the thing that would destroy my faith in international justice.

We discuss some of the much bigger issues with international justice in my story in our current issue. Like if asking the ICC to issue arrest warrants for warmongering dictators just further entrenches them. Like if international justice only applies to the unpopular or smaller guys in the UN, with ICC warrants out so far only for Africans. As The Atlantic points out in this excellent post, it's the credibility of the Libyan rebels that might be most questionable after this particular incident. And that's no small concern, since pretty much everyone, not just the ICC, is relying on them for information. Not to mention hope for Libya's future.