Song Sang-Hyun said his interest in international issues started at the age of nine, when the Korean War erupted in his hometown.
Three years ago, Song became president of the International Criminal Court, a consortium of countries that persecutes genocides, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. And Tuesday, he reflected on his long-standing passion to combat atrocity crimes on an international scale at a World Leaders Forum event.
“To this day, I can precisely remember the horrible stink of the decomposing corpses in those hot summer days,” Song said. “I might have been too young to mobilize, but I was old enough to realize the immense suffering and destruction that war inflicts.”
The Rome Statute established the court in 2002 after 160 countries agreed to set up a permanent international judicial system as part of the treaty, which Song called a “powerful statement of intent by the international community that impunity of atrocity crimes would no longer be tolerated.”
Though the ICC is independent from the United Nations, its operation relies on collaboration between the two organizations, but Song said that the partnership needed to be improved.
“The Security Council has not provided the ICC the help it needs to discharge the mandates into its council resolutions,” Song said. “We need a far more consistent and vigorous approach by the Security Council.”
Song also addressed how the court is working to have the United States join the organization, an idea Sujith Kumar, GSAS ’13, found interesting.
“As a human rights student, personally I am very encouraged by his comments on how he can see the U.S. working more closely together with the ICC,” Kumar said. “I understand U.S. is not ready for the treaty, but at least steps are being taken by the Obama administration.”
Song also shared his advice on how to be an effective leader with the audience, which he said included respecting diversity and cultural differences.
Even in his free time, Song said that his job is always on his mind.
“My only hobby is to play golf, on the very rare occasions when I have the time for it,” Song said.
Some attendees said that Song’s presentation illustrated his unwavering dedication to his passion, which was impressive.
Ed Brockhoff, SIPA ’14, said, “It shows you what sort of dedication and sacrifice you have to make to be seen as independent.”
Still, Brockhoff wished that Song would have discussed further the behind-the-scenes aspects of the court.
Ester Nyaggah, GS ’12, also said that she wasn’t satisfied with all aspects of Song’s presentation, particularly when he addressed opposition toward the court’s policies.
“It really irritated me because I’m from Kenya,” she said. “If they’re going to prosecute these criminals, then the people involved in those states should have a voice in it—if you’re doing this in the spirit of democracy and the greater good of the people, then why aren’t their voices included?”
But Song held firm in his optimism about changing the international landscape.
“Ultimately, the fight against impunity can only succeed when the national justice system of each state is strong enough to stand against atrocity crimes,” he said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Kumar. Spectator regrets the error.