How effective is the International Criminal Court?

On March 13, the International Criminal Court formally ended its case against President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, four years after Kenyatta was charged with inciting postelection violence. 1,200 people perished in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. Kenyatta was the first sitting president to appear before the ICC. The African Union heavily criticized the ICC investigation of Kenyatta, stating that the ICC targets Africa almost exclusively.[1] In the past 13 years, the ICC has spent more than $1 billion, indicted 28 people, who have all been Africans, and only had two successful convictions. [2] These figures beg the question: Is the International Criminal Court really effective?


In response to the failures of the 1990s to resolve the conflicts in Kosovo, Somalia, and Rwanda through ad hoc, hybrid, and national courts, the international community began to focus on the establishment of an international criminal court to avoid the confusion associated with these retributive justice systems. In 1998, this hope was realized with the Rome Statute, which adopted a treaty to establish the first permanent international criminal court. This treaty entered into force in 2002, after 60 states became parties to the Rome Statute.

Kofi Annan praised its establishment, and emphasized its goals to comfort victims while deterring future wrongdoers. 14 years later, the ICC has spend more than $1 billion and resulted in two convictions. Many have criticized the court’s lofty goals, slow moving and costly trials, its regional focus on Africa, and overall lack of success. While the ICC is now the primary address for international criminal accountability, its daunting mandate and worldwide reach have made its flaws even more visible. [3]

The ICC is an independent, permanent court located in the Hague that tries people that are accused of the most serious of international crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It’s goals are to achieve justice for all, end impunity, stop the cycle of violence, remedy deficiencies of ad hoc tribunals, act when national institutions are unwilling or unable to act, and to deter future war criminals. The court tries crimes relating to genocide, crimes against, humanity, and crimes of aggression. As many critics have pointed out, these crimes have a lot of overlap and can be difficult to define. The ICC is a “court of last resort” and operates on the complementarity principle, meaning that it investigates and prosecutes only where national courts have failed. The ICC also encourages victim participation and has funds to contribute to reparation payments.

There are three different ways a case can reach the ICC. A state party can request an ICC investigation, the head prosecutor can initiate an investigation, or the UN Security Council may refer a case. The ICC may investigate a case if the perpetrator is national of State Party, the crime is committed in the territory of a state party, or a non-party accepts jurisdiction.


The staunchest criticism of the court is that it is slow moving and costly. Since its inception, the ICC has spent over $1 billion and only convicted two people. In some cases, indictments may prolong a conflict because it can prevent a compromise or a deal.[4] The ICC has also faced intense opposition from states. The United States in particular has expressed concerns about how the court limits state sovereignty, arguing that the ICC’s broad jurisdiction infringes on state sovereignty. There is fundamentally no police force of the ICC, so its success depends heavily on state cooperation. Many critics have also pointed out that the ICC focuses almost exclusively on Africa, while ignoring atrocities committed by western countries. Every individual indicted by the court has been African. While these investigations may be valid, the African Union has developed a distrust of the ICC, as it has targeted two heads of state – Al Bashir of Sudan and Kenyatta of Kenya.

While the International Criminal Court is still a relatively new institution, these inherent problems indicate that it may be the time to reform the ICC. Its broad jurisdiction requires the respect and support of the international community. The ICC could benefit from clearer goals that are more realistic.





One thought on “How effective is the International Criminal Court?

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