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War and Justice

Timely and urgent doc explores the International Criminal Court, from Nuremberg to theatres of war in Ukraine and Palestine, revealing the unfortunate repercussions of EU incoherence and US meddling

Benjamin Ferencz, the American chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen trial, the ninth of 12 held in Nuremberg after WW2, says: “the biggest war crime of all is war itself”. Ferencz’s idea is present throughout Marcus Vetter and Michele Gentile’s documentary War and Justice, which focuses on Argentine lawyer, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), who frequently speaks about crimes of aggression.

The ICC is a young institution, borne out of the groundbreaking legacy of the Nuremberg trials, that for the first time in history pursued international justice for crimes against humanity. In July 1998, 120 states signed the Rome Statute and created the ICC to provide a legal apparatus to punish such crimes. However, the ICC has limited jurisdiction and is locked in a political struggle.

Onscreen text at the close of the film reads: “Powerful countries have undermined the ICC’s jurisdiction over wars of aggression, by requiring not only the defending state, but also the attacking state recognises the jurisdiction of the Court. This is the situation in Ukraine. To overcome this obstacle, it is now up to the 123 member states to amend the Rome Statute and give the ICC jurisdiction over any war of aggression, regardless of whether the aggressor is a member or not.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly recognised Palestine as an “observer state”, and in 2015, Palestine signed the Rome Statute and became an ICC member. This has allowed the Court’s Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, to request arrest warrants for the leaders of Hamas as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. What’s interesting here, is the comparison to the situation in Ukraine.

War and Justice explores the passive-aggressive relationship of the European Union towards the Court, that may be a result of US coercion. In November 2022, while continuing to support the ICC, the EU proposed setting up a special UN-backed tribunal to investigate and prosecute Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, with the support of Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Speaking at The Hague in May 2023, Zelensky stated that collectively, we want to see Putin in The Hague, but only one institution is capable of responding – a tribunal. Ocampo critiques the EU and Zelensky’s thinking. Audiences familiar with the history of The League of Nations, an unsuccessful early version of the UN between the World Wars, will sympathise with Ocampo, seeing lessons of the past being ignored. Instead of strengthening the ICC, it’s being compromised by geopolitical decision-making, that threatens to compound the cynical feelings towards the Court.

Importantly, the ICC is given a voice through Ocampo, who defends it against recriminations of ineffectiveness, first from Ocampo’s private hire driver, and then journalist Flo Weissmann, from Tiroler Tageszeitung, Austria’s largest daily newspaper. He outlines for Weissmann the limitations of the Court’s jurisdiction and to the driver explains that the proverbial small fish the Court may be perceived to go after are a big deal to the people in those countries.

In War and Justice, it feels that Ocampo and the Court are constantly under scrutiny, but Vetter and Gentile remind us of the ICC’s successes within its limited jurisdiction. For example, the conviction of Congolese military leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in March 2012, who during the Ituri conflict (1999-2003) conscripted child soldiers. The directors also remind us that the Court is still at the point of being a dream or an experiment. For Ocampo, war in the 21st century is obsolete, and he says, whether just or unjust, wars destroy the communities they claim to protect. Saying it’s time to end war, he sounds like a dreamer, but as Ferencz says, “Without dreamers, there is no progress.”

We are living in a time when the ICC offers an urgent alternative to wars of aggression as a resolution to conflict. War and Justice is a film filled with hope and inspiration, but it’s weighed down by the reality that this alternative is not given the recognition by key players on the political stage.

Vetter and Gentile’s documentary is undeniably timely and important, but we must be careful not to applaud simply because of the subject’s importance. Instead, like Ocampo in his meeting in August 2011 with the Palestinian delegation requesting the ICC’s intervention, we must take a neutral position and objectively critique the documentary’s merits.

Filled with admirable intentions, War and Justice might feel rough around the edges. It’s best likened to a meandering conversation whose focus is unsettled yet contributes invaluable insight into the subject discussed. Vetter and Gentile are helped by the charismatic Ocampo, and despite its shortcomings, War and Justice is an engaging documentary. It incisively explores ideas such as the tradition of “self-defence” as a justification for war. This threads together the Nazi regime and key figures in our contemporary past and present: former US President George W. Bush Jr., former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President/Autocrat Vladimir Putin.

War and Justice also discusses the idea that peace is reliant on justice, emphasising the ICC’s important role in making war obsolete. Vetter and Gentile force us to witness harrowing content, from images of war to the torture of detainees by US Service personnel. Never gratuitous, the inclusion of this footage makes the case that a legal framework is necessary to hold to account even the peacekeepers, because innocence is the first casualty of war. The alarming observation is how countries, including ICC member states like Germany are spending more on defence instead of moving away from the economics of conflict. This raises the question whether the ideological enemy is within?

Vetter and Gentile offer a conversation starter about the role of the ICC, providing insight into how Ocampo and his colleagues have built the institution, drawing on the Nuremberg trials, Ocampo’s role in the 1985 Junta trial of the Argentinian dictatorship’s crimes against its own people, the ICC’s limitations and ambitions, and its future.

The directors are forced to exercise caution in order to avoid falling down the many rabbit holes of thematic and conversational inquiry. After all, this is an in-depth discussion that is bigger than an 88-minute film. To Vetter and Gentile’s credit, they effectively introduce this broader conversation and give a voice to an essential institution, on which ride the hopes of future generations.

War and Justice premiered at the 40th Munich Film Festival.


By Paul Risker - 04-06-2024

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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