Today International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced that his body will investigate Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and company for possible crimes against humanity. By ICC standards, this is superfast action. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, for example, wasn’t indicted until 2008, years after the internatonal community knew about the slaughter in Darfur. This is some of that “timely and decisive” movement we’ve been looking for from the United Nations since the Libyan crisis began last month.
So, what now? The court has two months to report back to the Security Council with the results of its investigation. Then the ICC judges will decide whether to issue arrest warrants. The ICC does not have any authority to actually bring in defendants, so if Qaddafi is indicted, someone will have to apprehend and deliver him to The Hague. Maybe some anti-Qaddafi Libyans could get hold of him. Or maybe he will be forced out or step down and then leave the country, and the authorities of whatever country he goes to will arrest him.
Or, maybe not. Plenty of countries aren’t members of the ICC—notably the United States, which was one of only seven nations (along with Libya!) to vote against the statute that created the court. Plenty of ICC-indicted criminals have been at large for years because no one will arrest them. And plenty of authoritarian governments have violently smacked down massive protests with no serious consequences. A crazy person with an army can kill a lot of civilians in two months. It would be swell if the specter of an ICC investigation pressured enough of Qaddafi’s own people to turn against him, diminishing his ability to kill more. But it would be tragic if the world lazily leaned on the ICC’s announcement as an excuse to do nothing else while investigators watch the slaughter.