IER Blog Series: Promoting and Defending the ICC – The Role of Communications

This blog is part of a series on selected aspects of the ICC Independent Expert Review final report released on September 30, 2020.

The International Criminal Court (ICC)’s mandate makes it vulnerable to disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine it. In order for the court to enjoy support and trust, it is not enough for it to do its work successfully, it must also communicate its mission and achievements strategically and skillfully. Beyond outreach to affected communities (discussed in a separate post), the ICC has other communication responsibilities – it must communicate with a variety of stakeholders, including the public at large, the legal profession, academia, states parties, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society organizations operating globally and in different countries. Addressing a variety of audiences presents challenges both in terms of content and priorities; some stakeholders can help create support for the court in the long-term, while others need to be targeted to achieve specific short-term goals. Because of the diversity of actors and messages, it is important that the court draw on partnerships, including with the media. In the past, the court has been slow to react or silent in the face of attacks and has often failed to speak with a united voice in a convincing manner when that was required. The IER report makes a series of recommendations on communications regarding both public information and external relations, which are aimed at boosting the court’s image and ensuring broader support and cooperation with the ICC.

External Challenges

The IER report recognizes that the court faces a number of external and internal difficulties when it comes to effective communications. In 2017, the Open Society Justice Initiative, in cooperation with the ICC Registry, organized an expert convening on ICC communications. The IER report makes a similar assessment and reiterates many of the recommendations made at that gathering.

Common external challenges for an institution like the ICC include the need to cater to different audiences, which have diverse levels of interest and knowledge about the ICC. Communications are also faced with the inherent tension of presenting the ICC in a positive light (highlighting its successes and positive impact in the world) while remaining transparent, admitting mistakes, and acknowledging the complex realities in which the court operates.

Top among the external challenges, however, are the current threats against the court, i.e., the serious political attacks from the United States and hostility from Israel. In addition to undermining the ICC’s credibility, such attacks often make the court the target of deliberate misinformation campaigns. While the current threats are exceptional and unprecedented, it is no secret that the court’s mandate to prosecute war criminals will, on occasion, upset governments and other powerful actors. For that reason, the court’s communication tools and strategies must be fit to address such challenges on a regular basis and the court must be prepared to step up its response during times of acute need.

The IER report recognizes that defending and promoting the ICC’s work is not only the court’s business – it is a responsibility shared with states parties and the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) in particular when attacks against the court have the capacity “to undermine the effectiveness of the Court and impact its impartiality over the long-term.” Accordingly, the report advises that the ASP adopt a strategy to deal with attacks against the court in order to react “quickly and robustly.” The experts also believe that individual states parties should conduct public outreach activities, such as conferences and seminars, to disseminate information about the court and its work (para. 400, R169).

Internal Obstacles

The court is confronted with a number of internal problems that adversely affect its communications output. The IER report points in particular to the lack of genuine coordination across organs, and the absence of a court-wide communications strategy. Although the Registry has an office devoted to public information, many actors within the court, including the Office of the Prosecutor, the Presidency and judges, have significant public information and external relations functions.

To remedy the lack of coordination and prevent different organs from making communications decisions in an ad hoc manner, the report recommends that the ICC adopt “a dynamic and comprehensive communications strategy” (para. 386, R163). Furthermore, in order to enhance the court’s response to attacks, the IER report proposes that the ICC formalize a crisis management policy, in order to better draw from expertise and support within and outside the court, and to ensure timely reactions and communications (para. 402, R170).

The report also notes the importance of delivering communication training to judges and prosecutors “so that they are better able to appreciate how Court judgments, decisions and officials’ actions are perceived” (para. 388). This recommendation is particularly relevant in light of the extensive legal jargon that typically populates the ICC’s press releases, which are presumably drafted by judges or their offices. Other recommendations include considering engaging a branding expert “to advise on how the Court might more effectively publicly promote itself as an institution” and cultivating the relationship with the media (para. 388).

Finally, communications are expensive and they have not traditionally received adequate funding. The report only comments on the limited funds available for outreach, but the Justice Initiative has observed that this concern applies equally to other communications work. Improved coordination can ensure better use of limited resources, but prioritizing communications internally and supporting them through an acceptable budget is also crucial.

Communications can significantly influence how others perceive the ICC. The scale of the task is substantial, considering the ICC’s potential global reach and the multiple audiences it must address. In order to more effectively promote the court’s work, ICC communications must be adequately coordinated, supported, and funded. The external challenges the court faces will not easily abate, but the ICC and states parties can and should be better equipped to respond to them.

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