International Criminal Court (ICC)

International Justice Day and

the International Criminal Court

July 17

International Justice Day commemorates the historic global efforts to end genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity and to recognize efforts to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses. This is also a day to celebrate the international community’s work to create a more just and peaceful world.

International Justice Day

On July 17, 1998, the international community adopted the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

July 17 is celebrated annually to honor the international community’s efforts to provide and enforce human rights law promoting global peace, security, and well-being. This day also commemorates other critically important achievements in holding parties accountable for atrocities in World War II and in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia.

The International Criminal Court

The ICC is the world’s only permanent international criminal tribunal. It is headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, and is charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression,  and war crimes.

Some of the key features of the ICC

  • The ICC has jurisdiction over the gravest instances of atrocity crimes and targets only the highest priority perpetrators of these crimes.
  • The ICC prosecutes individuals, not organizations or governments.
  • The ICC is designed to become involved if the state in question is either unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression, or war crimes that occur within that state’s own jurisdiction. This is referred to as ‘complementarity;’  the ICC acts to complement and enhance the legal system.
  • The ICC is not part of the United Nations, though the Court may work at the request of the United Nations Security Council.
  • Cases come before the ICC if referred by a state party OR by a non-state party in reference to a situation in its country; if the Office of the Prosecutor opens an investigation into atrocity crimes that occurred in the territory of a state party or crimes committed by a national of a state party; or if the Security Council refers a situation.

The adoption of the Rome Statute creating the ICC was a momentous step towards ending impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious international crimes. The ICC’s work enhances a future of peace and security for the global community.

To date, 122 countries have ratified the Rome Statute.

The United States was instrumental in the drafting of the Rome Statute, the document which created the ICC. The US has not yet ratified the Rome Statute but retains a strong positive relationship with the Court on an ad hoc basis.

Ad Hoc Tribunals

The United Nations established ad hoc international tribunals, building on the precedence set by criminal justice efforts of the Allies after World War II at the tribunals in Nuremberg, Tokyo, and elsewhere. These tribunals were designed to addresses very specific conflicts and cases that occurred during a specific time.

  • The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN Security Council in 1994 to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes occurring between January 1 and December 31, 1994, in Rwanda.
  • The Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are hybrid domestic-international courts to try those responsible for atrocity crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war and the genocide in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule, respectively.

Read our rapporteurs’ report below and the full report from the Coalition for the International Criminal Court here.

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Assembly of States Parties Report 2016

Accountability for Syria

by Shannon Jankowski

Since 2011, stories of Syrian atrocities have horrified the world. As the conflict raged on, many looked to the International Criminal Court as a means of attaining justice. However, Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, leaving the ICC with limited avenues for gaining jurisdiction. The United Nations Security Council can refer the situation to the ICC, but to date, Russia has blocked attempts to do so. Some countries have prosecuted perpetrators fleeing Syria under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, yet those prosecuted are mostly low-level perpetrators, with the most powerful remaining out of reach.

In the absence of immediate options, the international community gathered at the Assembly of States Parties to discuss efforts to facilitate future accountability. Organizations such as the International Commission for Missing Persons and the Syrian Justice Accountability Center are working with refugees to gather DNA-based evidence for the future identification of victims and the locations of possible mass graves. Through witness interviews, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability is linking high and mid-level officials to specific crimes. The UN, Europol, and the Netherlands are also pursuing a joint investigative effort for evidence collection and documentation. With most predicting that accountability for Syria may take 20-25 years post-conflict, collecting this evidence now is critical to ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice and that victims receive reparations. Though access to justice is currently blocked, through its work, the international community is striving to ensure that justice delayed will not be justice denied.


The World Before 1993

by Amanda McAllister

This November, I was part of an NGO delegation to the 15th Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. I attended a session entitled “The ICC and Crimes Against Humanity.”

Sir Geoffrey Nice, while explaining the requisite elements for ensuring accountability for war criminals and oppressive regimes, stated that, many of us, because of our youth, didn’t know a “world before 1993:” the year the criminal tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established. The establishment of the ICTY was groundbreaking and opportunistic in the thawing of relations after the Cold War.

Yet, he pointed out, my generation didn’t know that world, where there was no expectation that bad regimes or unlawful wars would be held to account; a world where there was no Hague to send war criminals to.  Rather, those of us of who didn’t know that time grew up with the belief, and the expectation even, that leaders of regimes like the DPRK can and should be held to account. In law school, I had learned about the history of international criminal law, but I hadn’t truly considered how much this expectation informed my worldview.

He finished by stating that the hopes and expectations of the ordinary citizen “cannot be allowed to die.” While significant obstacles remain, as the recent withdrawals from the Court demonstrate, I feel gratitude for those whose hopes and expectations weren’t tempered by what seemed to be political impossibilities and whose dreams constructed “a world after 1993.”


Modern Slavery

by Shannon Jankowski

It is estimated that 20 -45 million people live in slavery. Yet justice remains elusive: in relation to the millions of victims, only about 5,000 prosecutions have occurred. A side event at the Assembly of States Parties sought to raise awareness of this issue and explore the role of international criminal justice in the fight against modern slavery.

The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over crimes of enslavement and sexual slavery, but only when committed as part of a widespread or systematic civilian “attack”, or when committed as part of a plan or policy during armed conflict. This high threshold fails to capture many perpetrators of contemporary slavery.

Panelists therefore stressed the importance of assisting domestic governments in implementing anti-slavery legislation and in educating citizens and law enforcement. Uganda, a nation facing significant trafficking issues, created an awareness campaign designed to reach potential victims through billboards and the media. It also launched training for transnational corporations and entered into multi-national agreements regarding fair labor standards. Yet the impunity gap remains: a Ugandan representative confirmed that out of 108 investigations, only 5 resulted in prosecutions. Many nations either do not have legislation against slavery, or struggle to define slavery due to religious and tribal customs condoning sexual slavery and forced marriage.

While there is hope that international anti-laundering laws and the UN’s commitment to end slavery through its 2030 Sustainable Development initiative will bring progress, much work remains to ensure that victims of slavery have access to freedom and justice.


The Long Reach of Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea

Amanda McAllister

During my experience as an NGO delegate to the 15th Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court, I attended a side-event entitled “The ICC and Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.” This side event was one of the most powerful sessions I attended. It spoke deeply to the strength of the human spirit, the power of the individual in demanding accountability, and the obligation of states to listen to those voices.

The session began with the testimony of a biophysicist from North Korea who defected to South Korea. After illegally listening to South Korean radio for one week, he experienced a watershed moment, describing it “as if a castle was pushed over by a wave.” One week was all it took to “open his eyes” to the nature of liberal democracies and of dictatorships. He described the feeling as a profound sense of loss and betrayal, where forty years of values, ideas, philosophies, and patriotism were demolished, having been built on the fragile ground of authoritarian-fabricated lies. He knew the severity of punishments for listening to South Korean radio, and had to keep the revelations to himself.

After Kim Jong-un took power, he planned to escape North Korea. Before he was able to execute his plan, however, he was detained, beaten, and tortured by authorities. After he was released, he attempted again to escape and successfully defected to South Korea.  He concluded his remarkable story by imploring the ICC address human rights violations in North Korea.