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SFIFF Review: “The Reckoning” Pamela Yates’ extraordinary documentary on the ICC and war crimes prosecution…prepare to be stirred, shaken

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

Emotions ran high at Monday’s West Coast premiere of  Pamela Yates’ new film “The Reckoning, ” a compelling overview of the first six years of the ICC, International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international court for prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide.  The documentary film, a contender for the coveted $15,000 Golden Gate Gate award announced this Wednesday, is one of two important films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7,  that explore genocide and efforts to restore justice.  Through accounts offered by victims, ICC lawyers, advocates and an active opponent of the ICC, director Pamela Yates has created a compelling and often heartening account of the pursuit of justice and its effects, both direct and indirect, on murderers (frequently in positions of leadership) who formerly believed they could act with impunity.

The ICC came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, came into force and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. The court’s official seat is in The Hague, The Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.  “The Reckoning” explores the history of the court’s establishment and follows ICC Argentinean prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team of prosecutors, for three years across four continents as investigate and pursue Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, track down Congolese warlords, pressure the U.N Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, for the Darfur massacres and pressure the Columbian government to prosecute those at the highest ranks responsible for brutal systematic killings that occurred in Columbia.  Ocampo rose to public attention in 1985, as Assistant Prosecutor in the Argentina’s “Trial of the Juntas“—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that senior military commanders were prosecuted for mass killings.

Watching the film is both an education and an emotional catharsis: we are sickened by the graphic footage of atrocities we have read about.  Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung and Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda are particularly persuasive as they explain their backgrounds and commitment to prosecuting the top criminals who have so far gotten away with horrific crimes against humanity.  As we follow Ocampo’s team along narrow paths to killing fields in four continents, we are taken aback by the contrast–lush fertile landscapes that upon closer inspection are laden with skulls, human bones, and teeth.  The survivors, often women, who were left for dead, and who have agreed to testify, talk about surviving brutal beatings, rape and the systematic murder of their families and neighbors, often by conscripted child soldiers.  We are sickened further by the frank descriptions of massacre given by former conscripted killers, abducted as young children and trained to kill.  The common thread in all these killings—to obliterate by the swiftest means possible.   We are also sickened that the U.S., which was instrumental in setting up the fundamental building blocks of the court, pulled back under the Bush Administration and refused to become a signatory.  We listen as renowned American lawyer and diplomat David Scheffer who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, during President Bill Clinton’s second term lays out the arguments in favor of U.S. participation and multilaterism in this important endeavor.   His explanation resonates at a very deep level with the principles of justice, leadership through example and intolerance for impunity honored by most Americans.  Scheffer led the U.S. negotiating team in the United Nations talks on the ICC and while he signed the Rome Statute hat established the ICC on behalf of the U.S. in 2000, he was critical of many aspects of the court and the negotiation process itself.  He particularly opposed the prohibition on any party making reservations to the Rome Statute and the manner in which the Statute structured the court’s jurisdiction.

If Yates’ film can be faulted, it is in this important segment which is not thorough enough in laying out the multilateral approach endorsed by Scheffer versus the unilateral course of the Bush Administration.  John Bolton,  Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is captured reading from his famous 2003 memo rejecting US participation and later in inflammatory bluster and the meat of the argument against U.S. membership takes a backseat to our immediate distaste for Bolton’s combative style.   The main argument that the U.S. has made against joining the ICC is that as the world’s superpower, it is frequently called upon and expected to take on a dominant policing role which puts it in a high liability situation.  The ICC would put the tiniest players on the world stage–Benin or Trinidad and Tobago– on an equal footing with the United States and the U.S. has feared that could lead to unfounded accusations against U.S. soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in difficult situations.  What global leader would agree to take on such high policing responsibility if the liability isn’t commensurate with the addition responsibility?  China, Russia, India have also refused to sign.  But Washington has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, it has also used its political and economic leverage to undermine the ICC by demanding that states sign bilateral agreements pledging not to subject American citizens to the court.  Those who refuse could be denied U.S. military or other aid.  Scheffer argues persuasively that the court is structured adequately to prohibit such occurrances and if the U.S. were to engage in illegal activities, it should be taken to task.  Moreover,  America needs to align itself again with international law to restore our credibility as a global power.  

IF the ultimate point of this excellent film is to convince us that the US needs to join, Yates has done her job; but if Yates is striving to change the mind of those in power, she has a ways to go.  Fortunately the film is an entre to a 3 year International Justice program IJcentral by Yates to involve citizens in safeguarding international justice.  Framing a story as complex as this is daunting. Yates’ ultimate message seems to be that despite US objections, the ICC has done and will continue to do important work.   A truly international court though needs the approval and backing of the world’s most powerful states.  What are the circumstances that might bring the U.S. and other powers  into the fold?

As of March 2009, 108 states are members of the ICC.  A further 40 countries have signed but not retified the Rome Statute.  The ICC can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United nations security Council.  The ICC is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.  The main responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is left to the individual states.

“The Reckoning” screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm at PFA, Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment