If there is something you should know about international law it is that it is extremely complicated, highly debated and always a contentious topic of conversation. In essence, to what extent are sovereign states entitled to their own decision-making regarding law and justice? Should there be an international governing body that acts as a supranational ‘check’, and if so, how much power should they be entitled to? International law is significant to international relations, and to understanding the global context of politics, but international law cannot be narrowed down to one single building or organisation. One very important piece to the puzzle, however, is the International Criminal Court.
What is the ICC?
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an intergovernmental organisation, and an international tribunal, that has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – essentially, anything that falls under ‘international crimes’ that may be difficult for states themselves to deal with, but it is important to note that it is meant as a last resort.
It sits in The Hague, the Netherlands, which has become a ‘hub’ for international relations, not just for the Dutch, but for all countries. The Hague hosts most foreign embassies and over 150 international organisations, so it has become one of the major cities for the United Nations alongside New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome and Nairobi.
The ICC is based on a treaty from 1998 called the Rome Statute, but it actually started off as an ad hoc tribunal to deal with international atrocities like the Rwandan genocide, and crimes in Yugoslavia. The main aims of the ICC is to bring an end to impunity, which is when someone is exempt from prosecution despite injurious consequences of an action. This may unfortunately happen during political instability, or in failed states where power is disproportionately distributed to a small elite.
The ICC is different from the International Court of Justice, which settles legal disputes between countries, rather than dealing with individuals. In many ways, the ICC has brought attention to accountability, by making sure that terrible crimes are not overlooked even during times of war and political instability.
The Limits of International Law
The ICC is not just interesting because it is a physical building that represents the complexities of international law, but also because it has sparked heated debates and political controversy. Currently, international law is technically not enforceable, meaning that countries can reject or ignore said international laws – but of course, this in itself creates instability and tension among states.
In that sense, international law may not be entirely meaningless, despite its lack of enforceability – in fact, some may say that much of the cooperation and regulations that exist today are all thanks to international law, its long and costly processes of negotiation, and the general adherence to it. The ICC is, however, limited in its ability to put political leaders and criminals on trial.
In order for someone to be prosecuted by the ICC, the person has to belong to a country that has signed and ratified the Rome Statute. There are several states at the moment that have not done this, for instance the United States and Russia. So the ICC is the perfect example of how limiting international law can be, even though it could be a source of justice, cooperation and potentially even peace.
The Law in Action
I had the opportunity to go to the International Criminal Court a couple of years ago, when Ratko Mladic was still on trial for war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars, although this was still connected to the ad hoc tribunal The Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The trial took years, and it was not until 3 years later I had visited that Mladic actually received his sentence.
He was extradited to the Hague in 2012, and the case was settled in 2017. Ratko Mladic was a general during the Yugoslav Wars and led the Army of Republika Srpska. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on 10 charges, one of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four violations of the laws and customs of war. He was deemed to hold responsibility for the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.
It was one of the most unsettling experiences I have ever had in terms of seeing someone guilty for such horrible crimes, when most of the time you only read or hear about these international phenomena. At the same time, it was a fantastic experience to see international law in action, and understanding how international relations actually work – before that, I had only read about war, state relations and global politics.
Is the ICC important?
The ICC may be controversial because there is no supranational organisation that has the power to impede on state sovereignty, it also lacks the ability to fully use its jurisdiction without state ratification. Even so, it is important to think what international relations would be without it.
The process may be slow, or even seem meaningless at times, but it undoubtedly shows that the international community is attempting to show commitment to international justice and to form a system that is based on legality. The ICC may be a relatively young building, but the history of international law far exceeds the birth of the institution, which is why I think the ICC is one of the most important building in the field of International Relations.
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