LectureHop: Song Sang-Hyun

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Order in the court

The latest event in the World Leaders Forum series featured Song Sang-Hyun, President of the International Criminal Court, speaking on the history and structure of the ICC. We sent our atrociously amateur reporter Artur Renault to watch what went down.

The lecture about one of the world’s most ambitious judicial projects took place in the main room in Casa Italiana, which features a large stage covered in allusions to Rome, the birthplace of many legal concepts that influence the ICC. This seemed appropriate. The room was crowded with journalists and grad students and human rights majors who know a lot more about the ICC than I do, but I was eager to learn. We sat as Prezbo stood up and delivered a short introduction, describing the ICC from its creation by the Rome Statute (which you may know because it protects your Facebook rights) to its current challenges in Kenya.

The crowd could instantly notice Song’s friendly presence and good humor when the judge joked that, while he considers New York his third home (after Seoul and The Hague), in the city his heart resides at NYU because he taught there some time ago.

But Song put the jokes aside as he talked about his childhood, growing up in the midst of the Korean War. He described in unsettling details how he could see and smell the rotting corpses on his daily ten-mile walk to get food. The experience didn’t move him, he said, but it certainly affected him. Despite this, he claimed to have lived a “privileged” life in his early years for having had the luxury of peace for its duration outside of the three-year war. Privileged, of course, compared to the child soldiers and victims whose lives have been deeply affected by the very criminals he judges. With this, he framed a question to the audience: “What do we do with the gift of peace?”

Song chose a legal career, which has brought him to the leadership of the world’s first permanent international court. Surprisingly, his words about the ICC focused primarily on its minor role. He explained how, unbeknownst to me, the ICC only judges the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and (possibly after 2017) aggression in the cases where the country involved is unable or unwilling to. It is also, despite what is commonly thought, independent from the U.N., although the Security Council exercises some authority over the ICC.

The ICC, he said, embodies a dream to end impunity, and as president he is full of responsibility for this; luckily Song has “infinite Asian patience” to deal with it. However, the real responsibility lies in the states. Impunity will never end by the hands of one court—it will only end when every country has a functional and fair justice system. Only in the end will we be on the way to end atrocity, and only then will we be on the way to end impunity.

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