Blog | International Criminal Court Comes to Fruition

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court came into force July 1, 2002, some 50 years after the United Nations first called for the establishment of a world tribunal. The Carter Center and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter have been strong advocates for the ICC.

The Center sent representatives to Rome in 1998 for the negotiations on the ICC and has collaborated with other international nongovernmental organizations to build support globally for the court. President Carter has sent dozens of letters to heads of state, encouraging them to support the establishment of the ICC.

Below is a discussion with the Center’s human rights lawyer, Ashley Barr, on the ICC and its implications.

What is the ICC?

The ICC is the first permanent tribunal to bring individuals to justice who have committed crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. There are several so-called ad hoc courts that focus on one region or country, like the tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, but the ICC’s focus is global and it will be a permanent system for addressing the most heinous crimes committed by individuals. Ad hoc courts are time-consuming and expensive to establish on a case by case basis. Judges and prosecutors have to be recruited for each new court, and deciding the procedures and applicable laws for each court can be contentious. Having a permanent court means all the pieces will be in place for the court to respond to grave crimes more efficiently and effectively.

Why is the ICC important?

The United Nations called for the establishment of an international court 50 years ago, and many tribunals including the one in Nuremberg after World War II have led to this historic occasion. This is the one of the most important human rights developments since the establishment of the United Nations itself. Having a uniform approach to prosecuting crimes against humanity means that there is greater potential to ensure equal justice for all and consistency in how international law is applied. The fact that 139 countries have signed the Rome Treaty and more than half of these have ratified it means there is agreement among a growing majority of countries on how to go after the Pol Pots of the world.

Is the United States involved with the ICC?

President Clinton signed the Rome treaty on the ICC on Dec. 31, 2000, but President Bush does not support the ICC and and his administration has announced that the U.S. signature will not be honored. The Bush Administration opposes the ICC for complex reasons including concerns that US citizens abroad, like soldiers and police working with U.N. peacekeeping missions, will be accused of horrible crimes by enemies of the US and dragged in front of the international court.

What are the implications of the United States not joining the ICC?

One implication of US opposition to the ICC is that the US is threatening to withdraw financial support and personnel from UN peacekeeping missions around the world. The US has already pulled its personnel out of East Timor, and a crisis developed over the fate of the UN mission in Bosnia because of this US fear of prosecution by the ICC. The US is arguing that its citizens should be guaranteed they will not be prosecuted by the ICC. But the ICC would only take action if US domestic courts were incapable or unwilling to prosecute US citizens at home for the most horrific of crimes, like genocide, committed abroad.

The US insists that other governments adhere to international standards and laws, and yet the US is unwilling to be part of the most important development in the field of international justice. It is hypocritical for us to encourage other countries to uphold the principles that are most valued to Americans–justice and equality–when we are inconsistent in our international actions and refuse to cooperate with the international processes. There is a paradox in the fact that we are trying to persuade other countries to join us in the war on terrorism, but we are actively opposing a nearly universal effort by other nations to address humankind’s greatest crimes.

As of July 1, the day the Rome treaty came into effect, 76 countries had ratified the treaty. In early 2003, judges and prosecutors will be elected. The ICC is expected to become fully functional later the same year.

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