The International Criminal Court was created to provide a way to hold those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide accountable. It was designed to put an end to the impunity with which leaders had previously been able to commit such crimes. More than 115 countries are party to the Rome Statute that established the I.C.C. Shamefully, the United States is not.
The arguments against ratifying the Rome Statute are based on the concern that, should we become a state party, our citizens (our soldiers) could be subject to prosecution for war crimes. This scares war criminals like Donald Rumsfeld. But it should not scare the rest of us. Though becoming part of the I.C.C. surrenders a small amount of national sovereignty, the only reason one need fear accountability for crimes like genocide is unconscionable. Something more serious is awry if we resist membership in the I.C.C. because we are committing the very crimes the court was created to deter.
Concerns about a politically motivated prosecution of the United States are unjustified. The I.C.C. has shown restraint and objectivity in their investigations of conduct in Iraq. It is not perfect by any means, but it is a work in progress. Investigations launched by the prosecutor on his own initiative must be approved by other justices, and even if those members of the court had some nefarious objective, the Security Council could indefinitely delay I.C.C. prosecutions. Any fear that Americans would be brought against our will before the I.C.C. is overblown. War, by itself, is not a punishable crime under the Rome Statute.
The I.C.C. prosecutes only those who commit crimes of a sufficient gravity, and only when the domestic judicial system is unable or unwilling to prosecute such criminals. We are talking about the Joseph Konys, the Omar al Bashirs, the Qaddafis of the world. Shouldn’t we, as decent Cornellians who respect human dignity, want such heinous criminals brought to justice regardless of their nationality? In multiple cases, the I.C.C. has intervened to stop leaders from killing their own citizens. This is a protection we should want extended to all people.
At present, the I.C.C. walks a fine line on its road to relevance and efficacy. Launch prosecutions with no chance of success, and the court risks becoming impotent. Focus on only easy cases, and the court risks losing legitimacy. The United States could help expedite the court’s movement towards greater legitimacy. As the global superpower, putting ourselves within the jurisdiction of the I.C.C. expresses the court’s legitimacy to countries who have not yet joined the court and countries who are currently members but sometimes ignore their obligations to the court.
The promise of the I.C.C. — the promise of international law — is that another Rwanda will one day become unthinkable. Joining the I.C.C. could make a real difference in deterring those who might commit these types of crimes. The creation of the I.C.C. represents a shift from “justice” being written by the victor of a war, and instead toward a more predictable, equitable system of justice based on enduring principles of human dignity. The United States has spent the first decade of the court’s existence opposing almost everything the court has done. Instead of standing in the way, the United States could help move this noble endeavor forward.
As Cornellians, many of us will likely be in positions of leadership sooner than we think. For the sake of us all, let us hope we are better than those who are afraid of prosecution for crimes against humanity. For the sake of those less privileged than us, for whom our worst nightmares are their daily realities, let us stand in support of a court that deters such crimes and holds the perpetrators accountable.
The court aligns with our core values. Ending Joseph Kony’s reign of terror in Uganda, stopping the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, seeing Qaddafi face trial for killing his fellow Libyans — these are all things we believe in.
President Obama often frames debates in terms of “which side of history” we wish to be on. Do we, as Americans, want to be on the historical side of impunity when it comes to those who commit crimes against humanity? Or do we want to be on the side of bringing those who commit these horrible crimes to justice?
Soon enough, it will be our turn to help lead our country forward. I propose we lead our country in the direction of human dignity by becoming members of the International Criminal Court.
Nicholas Kaasik is a first-year law student at Cornell. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.