On 1 July 2002, a group of countries around the world established the International Criminal Court (ICC or the Court) as a forum to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the world’s most serious crimes. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), which governs the ICC and today has 123 states parties, builds on the legacy of the ad hoc international tribunals that preceded it, marking a milestone in the advancement of international criminal law.
With jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression, the ICC is a court of last resort for serious offences that national governments are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute. The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) is an independent organ of the Court with the power to initiate investigations, subject to certain limitations. ICC investigations may also be initiated at the request of ICC states parties or the United Nations Security Council. The ICC’s 18 judges are elected by states parties to the Rome Statute, and the Court is divided into pre-trial, trial and appeals chambers. The ICC also recognizes the right of victims to participate in proceedings and provides support to assist them.
As of November 2022, the OTP had opened 17 investigations regarding situations in 16 countries. These investigations led to charges in 33 cases involving 49 defendants. Many of these cases are either ongoing – in a number of instances, because the accused are not in custody – or have ended prior to a verdict being reached. In total, the ICC has convicted five individuals for crimes under its jurisdiction and five others for crimes related to ICC proceedings, such as witness tampering.
Now more than 20 years old, the ICC has become an established, if controversial, part of the international landscape. The Court has demonstrated the viability of a permanent institution that can successfully investigate and prosecute international crimes, but its record of securing convictions has proven underwhelming. Recognizing the need for reform, the ICC states parties commissioned an independent review of the Rome Statute system in December 2019. In their final report, the experts made hundreds of recommendations for improvement, targeting all branches of the institution and the ICC states parties themselves.
The ICC faces challenges from other corners as well. Criticism of the ICC’s record from Africa has been particularly pointed; it includes accusations of racism and calls for the mass withdrawal of African countries from the ICC. The United States, among other powerful nations, continues to operate outside the Rome Statute system and is at times hostile to its operations.
Despite these challenges, the ICC’s mandate to end impunity for atrocities committed around the world remains as relevant today as it was the day the institution was founded, and the Court continues to move international criminal law forward to that end.
Read the full text of the HillStudy: The International Criminal Court: History and Role
By Laura Barnett and Benjamin Dolin, Library of Parliament
Revised by Scott McTaggart, Library of Parliament