Strengthen the International Criminal Court

 Laurent Gbagbo looks on next to his lawyer Emmanuel Altit before the start of his trial at the ICC on 28 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Laurent Gbagbo looks on next to his lawyer Emmanuel Altit before the start of his trial at the ICC on 28 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

The 1998 treaty which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted at a time when the world (or most of it) was willing to reach multilateral agreements on a variety of topics and was encouraging the development of international criminal justice. The two tribunals, set up by the UN Security Council, for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda had been relatively successful. The time was ripe for states to agree together to set up a permanent international court with wider scope than the two tribunals.

So the ICC was created, with jurisdiction over the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; its jurisdiction for the crime of aggression developed later. The court was given the power to prosecute nationals of states that were parties to the ICC Statute, and also to prosecute where the crime was committed in the territory of a state party, whatever the nationality of the alleged criminals. The court had further jurisdiction when the Security Council referred a situation to it.

That was some 20 years ago. There is now a perception in many quarters that the ICC has not fulfilled the expectations of its founders. The court’s proceedings are cumbersome and lengthy. Many of the accused are still at large, including Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan. Some €1.5 billion has been spent, and there have been only three convictions for the core international crimes.

There have been criticisms of the judges, the former Prosecutor and other officials, as well as concern over particular decisions of the court. The allegation that the court is only interested in crimes in Africa[1] is perhaps heard less frequently now than it once was (most of the African governments concerned referred the situations in their countries to the ICC themselves), and there has not been the mass walk-out of African states that was once predicted.

But in other quarters there is serious unease about the situation in the court. As the UK representative said at a meeting last year, ‘We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is fine when it isn’t.’[2]

The negative assessment of the ICC’s work may be countered by the fact that it is the failure of states to cooperate with the court that causes many of the problems. Further, the expectations of states and civil society about the possibilities of international criminal justice have been so high that no court would be able to meet them. It is not possible for one court actually to ‘end impunity’ for international crimes,[3] nor to prevent war-related violence and mass atrocities, nor to satisfy all victims.

Moreover, the criticisms of the ICC come against the background of the global crisis for multilateralism more generally. The present US administration is notoriously hostile towards this international institution.[4]

On the plus side, the establishment of the court has encouraged states to revise their own laws on international crimes and to institute their own prosecutions where it is possible to do so. It is also claimed that the very existence of the court can be a deterrent to potential perpetrators of international crimes. The court has begun to add to the body of international criminal law and has increased the possibility that mass atrocities will be investigated.

But there is indeed some truth in the criticisms made of the internal workings of the court. One problem is that the particular combination of the civil and common law systems that has developed has produced cumbersome procedures regarding the representation of victims at most stages of the proceedings. It has also resulted in endless appeals from huge numbers of small decisions made by one chamber or another.

Then there are the management failures which have led to officials of the court being awarded compensation by the administrative tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILO) because of the way they were treated by the court, and finally the decision of a few of the judges to take proceedings themselves at the ILO to have their salaries increased.

Some ICC decisions have been met with surprise. For example, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was in the custody of the ICC for 10 years, was convicted by a unanimous trial chamber of various crimes and then succeeded on his appeal. Following this and the acquittal of former Côte d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo,[5] there are concerns about the ability of the prosecution to succeed in cases against high-level alleged perpetrators.

Most recently, there has been criticism of the reasoning behind the appeal court decision regarding the immunity – or, rather, lack of immunity – of former president Bashir. And a decision of a chamber of the ICC not to authorize the opening of an investigation in Afghanistan has been seen as shielding the US from possible proceedings (though it has been welcomed by others as a pragmatic approach).

The message that certain problems with the ICC need fixing is coming not just from the writings of academics and the legal blogs,[6] but from governments too, including those, like the UK, which are among the foremost supporters of the court.

The former presidents of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties (which comprises the representatives of all states parties) say that they ‘are disappointed by the quality of some of [the court’s] judicial proceedings, frustrated by some of the results, and exasperated by the management deficiencies that prevent the Court from living up to its full potential’.[7]

Changes to remove the worst excesses of the procedures that have evolved could be effected without amendments to the treaty incorporating the ICC Statute. It may be that a change in culture is also needed. More modesty by the court, along with more realism from governments and civil society, is needed.

And, attractive as it might seem to push at the boundaries of the law, the court should be realistic in what it can achieve. It is next to impossible to prosecute a case effectively where there is no cooperation from the state on whose territory the crimes were committed.

What is needed is a court that can undertake efficient and effective criminal proceedings, delivering fair and impartial justice in the small number of cases which it is reasonable to expect it to address, in the light of the evidential challenges, limited resources and limited state cooperation.

Governments should decide together at the Assembly of States Parties to set in hand a review of the ICC’s operations. It has been suggested that a group of experts might be mandated to assess the management of the court;[8] on the basis of their report, governments could agree on the necessary improvements.

Not everything, however, can come within the remit of such a group. Governments should adopt new rules and practices to address matters such as the election process for judges and their training; governments might consider reaching their own understandings on how some provisions of the ICC Statute should be interpreted in practice. Governments should reach out to the many civil society organizations which have supported the court over the years, to ensure that they are involved in the process.

Measures of this kind cannot detract from the fact that the ICC is fundamentally sound and that its role is as necessary as when it was first established. As Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has said, ‘If there were no ICC in existence today, many people in many countries would be agitating for and demanding one. That we have one is a singular achievement. It behoves us to make it the best possible and to assist it, as States, civil society, and individuals, in the best and most productive way possible.’[9]

Elizabeth Wilmshurst CMG, Distinguished Fellow, International Law Programme.


[1] See, for example, du Plessis, M., Maluwa, T. and O’Reilly, A. (2013), Africa and the International Criminal Court, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, July 2013,

[2] GOV.UK (2018), ‘UK statement to ICC Assembly of States Parties 17th session’, 5 December 2018,

[3] As the preamble to the ICC Statute desires. See ICC (2011), Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, p. 1,

[4] See the speech of John Bolton, US National Security Advisor. Just Security (2018), ‘Bolton’s Remarks on the International Criminal Court’, 10 September 2018,

[5] Gbagbo was accused of various crimes which took place after Côte d’Ivoire’s election in 2010, in which Gbagbo lost power to Alassane Ouattara. The case was terminated by the court following a year’s hearings in which the prosecution put forward its evidence.

[6] See, for example, Guilfoyle, D. (2019), ‘Reforming the International Criminal Court: Is it Time for the Assembly of State Parties to be the adults in the room?’, EJIL:Talk! blog post, 8 May 2019,

[7] Al Hussein, Z. R., Stagno Ugarte, B., Wenaweser, C. and Intelman, T. (2019), ‘The International Criminal Court Needs Fixing’, Atlantic Council, 24 April 2019,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Goldstone, R. (2019), ‘Acquittals by the International Criminal Court’, EJIL:Talk! blog post, 18 January 2019, Richard Goldstone is also a former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.

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