A look inside the International Criminal Court

“The Reckoning,’’ which airs on PBS, includes a scene about former Congolese child soldiers. “The Reckoning,’’ which airs on PBS, includes a scene about former Congolese child soldiers. (Human Rights Watch International Film Festival)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009
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Some might glance at the title of this program and opt for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.’’ They expect a preachy, soporific treatise about the tenets of international justice. And while there is a whiff of that in “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Court,’’ they’d miss an excellent piece of journalism.

Director Pamela Yates and producer Paco de Onis bring us into the wilderness of mirrors that International Criminal Court prosecutors face in documenting, arresting, and trying the architects of crimes against humanity around the world. The 90-minute film runs briskly through war-crimes trials from Nuremberg to the present, and then chronicles in intimate fashion the attempts of the ICC’s first chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and his small team to bring the court into existence and then prosecute perpetrators.

We see the politics, the legal mind games, and the gutsy on-the-ground investigations to document massacres and issue arrest warrants for them. The program exposes the great flaw in the system: The court has no enforcement powers of its own and must rely on local governments to apprehend the suspects and bring them to The Hague in the Netherlands, where the court is located.

As of today, for example, the ICC has failed to bring to justice Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for massacres in the Darfur region of the country after issuing an arrest warrant against him. Just who is going to take the man into custody in his own country?

“The Reckoning’’ also uncovers the determined - indeed, shocking - efforts by the United States under President George W. Bush to block the creation of the court and, failing that, to kill it once it went into business in 2002. The issue was national sovereignty, and we hear John Bolton, a senior State Department official at the time, say, “We should isolate and ignore the ICC,’’ adding the American objective must be to make it “wither and collapse.’’ More than 120 countries have joined the court, yet the big dogs - the United States, Russia, and China - have not.

The future of the court is an open question. If the ICC does not deliver the goods, it will become an impotent symbol rather than a feared force in the crucible of international justice.

What elevates the documentary was the decision to take us with ICC investigators to the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Sudan, among other countries, in the effort to amass evidence that supports arrest warrants. This is powerful raw footage that brings us down from the lofty language in the Hague to the brutality on the ground. The balance works.

We are mere feet away from survivors of the vicious Lords Resistance Army in Uganda as they describe the massacres committed against women and children as well as men. The army used rape as a means of intimidation and child soldiers to do the dirty work. While the victims talk, we confront appalling pictures of dead bodies and grainy footage of scary militias on the prowl.

We gain great sympathy for the charismatic Moreno-Ocampo as he struggled to bring the ICC into existence. The proceedings at the Hague may be dry and slow, but the memories of evil are riveting.

Sam Allis can be reached at

THE RECKONING: The Battle for the International Court On: WGBX, Channel 44

Time: Sunday, 9-10:30 p.m.

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