An Inside Look at “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court”
In preparation for the Consultative Conference on International Criminal Justice to be held in September at the United Nations in New York, Hauser Center staff interviewed Paco de Onis, Producer of “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court”, about the challenges of production, global expectations of the Court, and the role of NGOs in the system of international criminal justice.
About the Film:
Late in the 20th century, in response to repeated mass atrocities around the world, more than 120 countries united to form the International Criminal Court (ICC)—the first permanent court created to prosecute perpetrators (no matter how powerful) of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The Reckoning follows dynamic ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team for 3 years across 4 continents as he issues arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, puts Congolese warlords on trial, shakes up the Colombian justice system, and charges Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur, challenging the UN Security Council to arrest him. Building cases against genocidal criminals presents huge challenges, and the Prosecutor has a mandate but no police force. At every turn, he must pressure the international community to muster political will for the cause. Like a deft thriller, The Reckoning keeps you on the edge of your seat, in this case with two riveting dramas—the prosecution of unspeakable crimes and the ICC’s fight for efficacy in its nascent years. As this tiny court in The Hague struggles to change the world and forge a new paradigm for justice, innocent victims suffer and wait. Will the Prosecutor succeed? Will the world ensure that justice prevails?
Watch the Trailer:
Rahim Kanani – Hauser Center: In terms of access, process, and message, what were the biggest challenges you faced in making The Reckoning? And what was a key ‘take-away’ moment?
Paco de Onis – Producer of “The Reckoning”: Certainly one of the biggest challenges in the making of “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court” was gaining access to the inner workings of the Court. At Skylight Pictures, we average 3-4 years to make a documentary, because building trust and deep knowledge of the subject, and the characters involved, is an essential part of our process. In the case of “The Reckoning” we first started thinking of making a documentary about the ICC in May 2002, when we learned that this amazing idea of having an International Criminal Court was about to become a reality, as the threshold of 60 countries ratifying the Rome Statute had just been crossed. Even though at the time we were just beginning to work on “State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism” (our documentary based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission), we started putting out feelers and finding ways to approach the ICC. In November 2004, while at a documentary conference in Amsterdam I called the Office of the Prosecutor to request a meeting. The Court was still very much a “start-up” justice venture at the time, to paraphrase former ICC Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung, and I arrived at a building that was mostly empty to broach the idea of making an in-depth documentary film about this nascent institution. I was immediately told all the things we wouldn’t be able to film or do, and that it would be impossible to have cameras wandering around the building. They did their best to lower any expectations we might have of gaining deep access to the workings of the Court.
Another part of our filmmaking process is to form a Board of key project advisors, one of whom was Christopher Stone, Faculty Director of the Hauser Center. In January 2005 he introduced us to ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who was teaching a course at Harvard Law School that Winter semester, and this meeting in turn led to us meeting Christine Chung. Many conversations ensued over the following months with the Prosecutor and his team, and we finally arrived for our first shoot at the ICC in September 2006, to film the Confirmation of Charges hearing for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. It was a difficult shoot, but also very rewarding – as the OTP saw how we work, they gradually realized that we are not producing news reports, and that we were in this for the long-haul – it took 3 years to shoot “The Reckoning”, and on the journey we developed a solid basis of trust with our characters, not only at the Court but also during our time in the situation countries.
When we were developing our project we thought that it would be a film about trials, a kind of courtroom drama on a global stage. But the fact that the ICC is a permanent court is one of the things that makes it really unique – it means that it has to intervene in ongoing conflicts, thereby raising the peace and justice debates that have whirled around it for years in the Uganda and Sudan cases. It means that member countries have to be conscious of complementarity with the Rome Statute, as the section about Colombia shows in The Reckoning. And even though the Court has no police force, any arrest warrant it issues has no statute of limitations, a fact that has dawned on the targets of the Court’s investigations. So a key ‘take-away’ moment for us was the realization that our film would be much more about the effects that this new Court was having in the world, establishing a new paradigm for justice – in fact, the first ICC trial didn’t begin until a week after we had our world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009!
RK: Are expectations of the International Criminal Court too high? If so, what should we expect of the Court?
PDO: Expectations of the International Criminal Court are perhaps too high in terms of traditional measures of the success of a criminal court, i.e. number of trials and their outcomes. Instead people should be looking at the effects that the Court can have by its mere presence, both in terms of potential deterrence of crimes, but also in the way that its very existence has started to bring national justice systems in line with international norms of human rights law. The case of Sudan brings up important questions of expectations regarding the Court – the case was referred to the Court by the UN Security Council, but after the OTP gathered evidence and built a case and requested an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, many in the international community said that the OTP had reached too far in pursuing the President of a country, and that the arrest warrant should be deferred – but wasn’t the OTP simply fulfilling its justice mandate? What would be the alternative scenario – that the OTP halt its investigation for political considerations? A similar situation unfolded in Uganda after the Court issued arrest warrants for the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army. So it’s clear that the ICC will always be at the center of controversy as the international community comes to a reckoning with what it actually takes to execute the mandate of the Rome Statute.
RK: While making The Reckoning, how would you characterize the relationship between the NGO community and the Court? How important are NGOs to the advancement of international criminal justice?
PDO: We always start to build relationships with members of the NGO community as we embark on the development of our films, even before we begin to film, and they eventually become a key element in the dissemination of our films, as they use them in their work. In the case of “The Reckoning” we quickly learned how essential the role of the NGO community has been and continues to be in the development of the international justice system, going all the way back to Nuremberg, but gaining momentum in the 1990s with their involvement in the preparations for the Rome Conference in 1998. At the Rome Conference their role was so fundamental that I don’t believe there would be a Rome Statute today if not for their dogged determination and dedication to the creation of an International Criminal Court. Now that the Court is in operation, the NGO community continues to play a crucial role in its advisory and ‘watchdog’ capacity vis-a-vis the Court, but also is at the forefront of the evolving body of thought on how to grow the international justice system as a whole, including the creation or strengthening of regional justice institutions, and the bringing national justice systems in line with international norms. and last but not least, they are a driving force for universal ratification of the Rome Statute – without the NGO community’s role, it’s hard to imagine how we could have reached 66 ratifications in four short years after the signing of the Rome Statute in 1998, and 109 countries today.