Side Event: 17th Assembly of State Parties | “Challenges and opportunities for the Universality of the Rome Statute system” (co-hosted by the Netherlands and Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA)))

Overview by Phedra Neel, Research Associate PILPG NL


  • This event consisted of several representatives of the region in question and how and why their state became a State Party or why it did not and the challenges it faced during this process.

  • A highlight was the positive atmosphere in the room and the belief that any possible challenges can and should be overcome. The speech given by Mr. Kwoo was positive despite Malaysia deciding to suspend its efforts for ratification. The statement from Mr. Licht that the remaining 8 island states are open for discussions on ratification raised hope for improvement in the future.

  • A personal highlight was the debate on whether or not Muslim majority states (being under Sharia law or not) can become a State Party. Sharia law does not stand in the way of ratification as the Prophet teaches equality and that is exactly what the ICC aims to achieve: equality through the rule of law.

The Asian region represents 60 percent of the world population but is the region with the least ratifications. Of all the ASEAN states, only two have ratified the Rome Statute. 

Mr. Paul van den Ijssel, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons explained that he has been working hard, together with South-Korea to engage in a dialogue in these countries. There is a growing interest, as is shown by Malaysia’s declaration to join and by the number of states referring to the principle in their opening speeches. Mr. van den Ijssel stressed that to promote universality, we must trust in the Court and the civil society. 

Mr. Yun Young Lee, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Netherlands stressed the need and the importance of universality for the Court to effectively execute its work and the important task of working together to improve the opinion of the public on the ICC.

Mr. O-Gon Kwon, President of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC explained that the hesitance of Asian states to join or the urge to withdraw from the ICC stems from four misperceptions: that the ICC would have retroactive jurisdiction, that it is a violation of a state’s sovereignty, that a monarchy cannot join and that a withdrawal can stop ongoing investigations or proceedings.  He further explained that there are also political considerations. Some states prioritize human rights, others economic development or environmental issues. 

Mr. John Licht, Ambassador of Vanuatu to the EU stressed that Vanuatu is a small island state in the Pacific and that being a member of the ICC family is a wise step to prevent any atrocities from happening. Only eight out of 16 of the island states are currently a State Party. The others are also interested but have practical concerns such as the costs attached to ratification. 

Sheik Mohammed Belal from Bangladesh was very happy that his state has ratified the Rome Statute. The ratification was a response to the bloody war of 1971 which cost numerous lives and the wish to prevent the younger generation from a similar suffering. Now, they are happy that through their ratification, the Rohingya people get a chance of justice, while he regrets that the young generation is being confronted with international crimes yet again. 

Andrew Khoo, member of the Human Rights Committee Malaysia, was sad to announce that his government is pausing their efforts to ratify the Statute. This was put down to a battle between nationalistic feelings versus internationalism. However, Mr. Khoo noted that he believes that these feelings will last for a while and that the government must find to courage to push through. This hope for ratification is not idle as Malaysia has shown itself to be supportive of the ICC when asking the UNSC to refer the case of the Rohingya and an attack on Gaza to the ICC (while not being a State Party themselves). Furthermore, there is a belief that if the downing of MH17 would have been referred, more progress would have been made than now.

Following the statements from the panel members, a member of the Iranian delegation asked for their experiences with adopting the Statute while respecting Sharia law. Sheik Belal explained that this has never been an issue in his country as the teachings of the Prophet are in line with the aim of the ICC which is to install equality. 

The closing remarks by Dr. David Donat Cattin stressed that the ICC is an international court not a supranational court. He eloquently noted that “we can put together some actions and assist the states that do want to join. It is not an easy job to fight for the rule of law, but we don’t want the law of the jungle and we are not lions.”