The Growing Importance of the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. Image: Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar. Last year, network television viewers received a taste of the International Criminal Court (ICC) through NBC’s new police series, Crossing Lines. The show follows a fictional “special crimes unit” of the ICC tasked with investigating murders, kidnappings, bank heists, and other crimes. Unfortunately, the show’s storyline bears little resemblance to the mandate or work of the real ICC. For one thing, the ICC has jurisdiction over only the most serious international crimes: genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It would not pursue the types of crimes portrayed in the show. Yet, the show’s creation indicates growing popular awareness of the ICC’s increasing global importance.

While the real ICC has no police force or special crimes unit, recent developments have highlighted progress in bringing ICC fugitives to justice. Last March, Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and an ICC fugitive, presented himself at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and requested transfer to ICC custody. With the cooperation of the United States, which is not a State Party to the Court and was therefore under no legal obligation to cooperate, Ntaganda was flown to The Hague, escorted by an ICC delegation, where he was charged with murder, rape and sexual slavery, and conscripting child soldiers.

This impromptu transfer came on the heels of another development in the United States: the passage of bipartisan legislation expanding the Rewards for Justice Program. This program was originally created in the 1980s to provide monetary rewards for information related to transnational crimes. The 2013 expansion of this program allows the State Department to provide rewards for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of individuals wanted by international criminal tribunals, including the ICC. The State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information regarding Joseph Kony, an infamous warlord who has been under an ICC arrest warrant since 2005 for murder, pillaging, sexual slavery, and use of child soldiers.

Earlier, in 2012, Malawi—1 of 122 State Parties to the ICC—cancelled an African Union summit it was slated to host in order to avoid admitting onto its territory Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who has been under an ICC arrest warrant on charges related to atrocities committed in Darfur. Bashir did attend a July 2013 African Union summit in Nigeria, another ICC member state, yet this sparked criticism from both Nigerian and international NGOs, and Bashir ultimately departed early, citing a prior engagement. Then in September, Bashir announced plans to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, a move that caused significant controversy. The United States, despite not being a State Party to the ICC, denounced Bashir’s plans and did not grant him a visa immediately. Amid continuing speculation, and in the wake of protests and deadly clashes in Khartoum over increased fuel prices, Bashir cancelled his plans, giving no further details.

These developments, while modest, indicate a growing recognition of the importance of the ICC in preventing or mitigating mass atrocities where authorities lack the ability or willingness to bring perpetrators to justice. These atrocities not only cause massive human suffering but can also create humanitarian and economic crises that destabilize entire regions.

Undoubtedly, ICC prosecution of the highest-level perpetrators is not sufficient, in and of itself, to address the myriad problems created by atrocity situations. ICC efforts must be complemented by longer-term local justice efforts, such as in-country trials, truth and reconciliation commissions, and legal and institutional reforms. But ICC involvement has the potential to mitigate the severity and destructiveness of these situations and reduce the need for international military interventions.

The ICC, of course, has a long way to go. Only eleven years old, it continues to climb a steep learning curve. The parliament of one member state, Kenya, has approved a motion to withdraw from the Court, and the African Union recently agreed to support Kenya’s request that the UN Security Council defer the ICC’s Kenya cases for one year, though the Security Council denied this request. The ICC’s Assembly of States Parties did, however, agree to a rule change that allows heads of state to make appearances at their trials through their attorneys or via video link, on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, three permanent Security Council members—the United States, Russia, and China—remain non-member states. But the U.S. relationship with the ICC, while limited, is cooperative. U.S. efforts to assist in the apprehension of fugitives are noteworthy, and commentators have recently noted Americans’ growing comfort with the Court and America’s support for the Court. Still, the Court will no doubt require increasing support and cooperation from all nations for it to achieve its important mandate.

Yet, even at this early stage, the importance of the ICC is clear. We live in a deeply interconnected and interdependent world, one where the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. hold true: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Justice is imperative, not just as a redress for crimes that have been committed, but because it is the surest foundation for viable and lasting peace.

The ICC helps promote accountability and the rule of law, reduce the perceived value of criminal behavior, secure justice for victims, and promote post-conflict peace and stability. Recent developments—from governmental actions to network TV shows—suggest a growing realization of this fact. The movement for global criminal justice is gaining momentum, and the ICC is at its center.