What you need to know about the ICC in 5 Minutes or less

What you need to know about the ICC in 5 Minutes or less

Last week commemorated the anniversary of the Rome Statute, marking the birthday of the International Criminal court (ICC). Founded in 2002, the International Criminal Court, which is based in the Hague (Netherlands), was designed to be the court of last resort and a pillar of objective justice.

The ICC prosecutes perpetrators of:

  • Genocide
  • War crimes
  • Crimes against humanity
  • Crimes of aggression

As a court of last resort, it is only meant to intervene when a country’s judicial bodies cannot bring a perpetrator to justice because their institutions are not robust enough to do so (or because the incumbent government is unwilling to do so).

Sounds great. So what’s the catch?

In the ICC, prosecution can only take place if a nation ratifies the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction, and nationals from said countries accept ICC jurisdiction. In some cases, governing bodies like the UN Security Council can make a case to bring someone before the ICC regardless of their nation of origin. Additionally, if the crime was committed in a nation that is a member state party by nationals from nations outside ICC jurisdiction, these individuals can also be brought to justice.

At present, 123 (of 195) nations have signed up to the ICC, recognising its mandate and providing support in transporting those under international arrest to the Hauge. However, key players such as China, Russia and the US are not part of the Rome Statute.

The US is particularly vocal in its criticism of the ICC. So the next question is: why?

The USA vs. the ICC

The US reluctantly agreed to the Rome Statute and joined the ICC under the Clinton Administration, but left under President Bush’s leadership, who established subsequent legislation to prevent re-entry. Under the Trump administration, the ICC has been dubbed a “kangaroo court”, the reason for this being the ICC involvement in both Afganistan and Israel.

Here is where it gets complicated

Although the US does not accept the ICC, Afghanistan does, the ICC has opened up an investigation of war crimes that took place in Afghanistan – not just by the Taliban and Afgan forces, but by the US military, too. To clarify, the US is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens could still face prosecution if found guilty of war crimes. The US claims that the ICC undermines its national sovereignty and ability of its own judicial system to bring perpetrators to justice. The US has even imposed sanctions on ICC prosecutors who are progressing the Afghanistan investigation.

So what has Israel got to do with this?

The ICC is also investigating crimes in Israeli-occupied Palestine. Like the US, Israel is not a member of the ICC and has often criticised the ICC for its bias against Israel. Israel supported the US sanctions against the ICC and stands with the US in preventing any further action.

Is the ICC going after Africans?

African nations make up 34 of the ICC’s 123 member states, it must be noted that the ICC is carrying out many investigations but of the 28 cases that have been brought to the ICC to date, all have been for African leaders.

The ICC has received staunch criticism from those who say that the ICC targets African nations.


When asked about the ICC’s in African nations, Director of Markere Institute of Public Researched shared this:

“The ICC promised us rule of law. The test of rule of law is that it should apply to everybody, particularly the most powerful. When rule of law does not apply to the most powerful, then it is not rule of law, it is warlordism, it is the rule of the powerful.”

There’s no question that war criminals should be brought to justice regardless of their nationality. However, we should ask why so many African leaders have faced prosecution whilst other powerful nations like the US, the UK, and China are not being held accountable for their own crimes – for example, the ICC has not investigated Tony Blair and the Iraq war. Some nations have even pulled out of the Rome statute to avoid what they feel is undue criticism.

Do they have the manpower?

The ICC does not have its own army or designated troops on the ground. This means that it must rely on member states’ resources to provide military support, and on nations’ goodwill to transport those with warrants for international arrest. Where nations do not ratify the Rome Statute this can mean that war criminals can be “hiding in plain sight.”

In Conclusion

Despite the criticism of the International Criminal Court, it is still widely recognised for serving as a check and balance for the world’s most powerful leaders. Is it flawed, but in its 18-year history, its four convictions convicted four powerful people who otherwise may not have received justice for their crimes.

Admirably, in spite of sanctions posed against it by the US government, the International Criminal Court continues to pursue its investigations without buckling to US pressure. As of March 2020, Senior ICC judges authorised the Afghanistan war crimes inquiry. This gives hope that although the ICC is not perfect, it serves to remind everyone that no one is above the law, and that there is a governing body that will fight for justice on behalf of citizens around the world.