What’s Up with the International Criminal Court?

by Professor Prorok

Recently, Russia announced that it was withdrawing its signature from the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002.  While Russia never ratified the Rome Statute and was therefore never a State Party to the ICC, this move is worrisome for proponents of the ICC, as it comes on the heals of three prominent withdrawals by States Parties.  Russia now joins the ranks of Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia, all of whom announced their intentions to leave the court over the past month.  Some commentators believe that more countries, particularly those in Africa, are likely to follow suit and leave the court.

This recent trend of withdrawals raises a question: should we care about states leaving the ICC?  Arguably, the answer to this question depends upon whether the ICC has positive or negative effects on global politics, particularly with respect to deterring human rights abuses and promoting peace in war-torn societies.  Luckily, recent political science research begins to answer these questions about the ICC’s effectiveness for us.  Unluckily, the answer to the question of the court’s impact is not straightforward.  Here’s what we know:

  1. The ICC may actually prolong dictatorial regimes. Recent research by Nalepa and Powell shows that a strong regional ICC presence may make it less likely that dictators peacefully step down from power. This suggests that the court, under certain circumstances, actually prevents peaceful transfers of power and democratic transitions.
  1. The ICC, under certain circumstances, prolongs civil conflicts. In my own forthcoming research, I find that the ICC prolongs conflict when it initiates a preliminary examination or a formal investigation in an ongoing conflict situation. This is because the ICC’s involvement threatens key leaders of rebel groups and governments – those whose participation and cooperation is necessary to reach a settlement deal – with prosecution.  Faced with punishment at the ICC, these leaders may avoid negotiations and refuse settlement deals as long as ICC warrants remain in effect, effectively prolonging civil war.  I find that this effect is most pronounced when the risk of punishment at home is low.
  1. While the prospects for democratization and conflict termination are grim, however, the ICC does appear to improve respect for human rights. Research by Appel shows that ICC ratification leads to improved respect for human rights in ratifier states, for example. Similarly, forthcoming research by Jo and Simmons shows that ICC involvement can improve human rights practices not only among governments but also among rebel groups who have a separatist agenda and are seeking legitimacy and support from the international community.

So, should we care about the recent spate of withdrawals from the ICC?  The court has complex and multifaceted effects that are difficult to boil down to a singular ‘bad’ or ‘good’ assessment.  Ultimately, the court can be a force for justice and a promoter of human rights in the world, despite some of its more detrimental effects.  It is imperative, however, that officials within the ICC critically assess the effects of their actions moving forward.  Perhaps the recent withdrawals of Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia, as well as Russia’s decision to withdraw its signature, will prompt some self-reflection and re-examination within the ICC.

(Professor Prorok is teaching POLI:3512 International Conflict and POLI:3523 Non-State Violent Actors in the Spring 2017 semester)