09/10/2012 20:05 BST | Updated 09/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Victims Need More From International Criminal Court Investigation in Côte d'Ivoire

While steps taken in recent weeks towards Côte d'Ivoire soon becoming a full member of the Court are greatly encouraging, the hard work is only beginning of bringing national laws into line with the international legal norms set out in the Rome Statute to ensure domestic prosecutions of grave crimes.

With thousands of victims crying out for justice for heinous crimes committed during violence that followed Côte d'Ivoire's disputed 2010 presidential elections, the intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has brought great hope to many. Yet, a perceived bias in prosecutions, a lack of impartial information and frustrations regarding access to its proceedings threaten to undermine the credibility of the Court.

Côte d'Ivoire is emerging from a deeply violent crisis that reached its climax in the November 2010 post-election violence, causing great suffering to every political, regional and religious grouping. In October 2011, ICC judges - following a special acceptance of the Court's jurisdiction by Côte d'Ivoire - authorized a request by the ICC prosecutor to open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during this period.

With former president Laurent Gbagbo now in detention in The Hague - suspected of crimes against humanity and awaiting a determination on his fitness to participate in a hearing to decide whether his case will move to trial - expectations are high among victims that justice will be delivered and the Court's unique reparations provisions will help them rebuild their lives.

However, public opinion on the ICC is very much divided along political lines, with Gbagbo followers generally in opposition, and those supporting President Ouattara's government in favour. Others outright oppose the Court for a perceived anti-Africa bias. These sentiments are enflamed by a number of partisan yet influential media outlets.

Delays in the case against Gbagbo - the first former head-of-state to appear before the Court - have been presented as evidence of his innocence by his supporters, while many victims are reported to be worried that the ICC process will drag on indefinitely. The fair trial reasons behind the delays need to be clearly communicated.

Civil society organisations in Côte d'Ivoire have also urged the ICC prosecutor to bring charges against individuals on both sides of the political divide suspected of committing crimes and to extend the investigation back to 2002 - which ICC judges have authorised - to ensure justice is delivered to all victims of the conflict. The failure to do so has played into the hands of those seeking to portray the Court as biased.

Although victims tend to support the Court irrespective of their political affiliation, the ICC investigation has not greatly altered their situation and frustration is growing. The vast majority do not receive sufficient support and information to exercise their right take part in the various Court proceedings. That only 139 victims have been authorized to participate in the Gbagbo case underlines that the Court's work with the population has not been extensive enough to date. The Court's recently instituted collective approach for victims to apply to participate--which aims at being an efficiency measure--also remains widely misunderstood, even among legal representatives, which could lead to delays down the line in the courtroom.

Victims still mistrust the national justice system. Gbagbo's administration did attempt a victim identification process, but managed only to find those who had supported the former president, and promised reparations were not forthcoming. It is still unknown how many victims have been identified by a similar initiative by the current government, and now many Gbagbo supporters are reluctant to come forward.

This is why victims of all categories of crimes between 2002 and 2011, regardless of their political affiliation, need to be engaged by the ICC and allowed to participate in its proceedings. With the government, non-governmental organisations and the ICC all having different criteria for identifying victims, greater coordination is required to improve efficiencies and achieve better results. There is also a need for a special focus on identifying victims of rape and sexual violence, who suffered greatly during the conflict and were marginalized afterwards. Others need may need psychological and/or medical care. Meanwhile, victims that come forward must be protected, with many reluctant to do so due to safety concerns. Civil society can only do so much with its limited resources.

While steps taken in recent weeks towards Côte d'Ivoire soon becoming a full member of the Court are greatly encouraging, the hard work is only beginning of bringing national laws into line with the international legal norms set out in the Rome Statute to ensure domestic prosecutions of grave crimes.

In the meantime, however, to overcome these many challenges the ICC needs to be more proactive in engaging the population by intensifying its communication and outreach activities - including by the immediate opening of its planned field office and having a larger staff presence on the ground - to counteract prevailing misinformation by powerful figures and in the media, to raise awareness on a myriad of victims issues, and improve efficiencies in its delivery of justice.

Of course such activities require resources. However, if some of the states that fund the Court pursue their blind desire to achieve cuts to its budget this year, the consequences will be felt long into the future. Ultimately, the credibility of the ICC and that of the rule of law in Côte d'Ivoire will depend on the Court's ability to successfully meet, and manage, victims' expectations for justice. Investing in justice today means savings tomorrow, both financially and in lives.