What is the International Criminal Court?

Felicia Dye

The International Criminal Court, also known as the ICC, is an independent judicial organization that reserves the right to try individuals accused of the world’s gravest crimes. These include forced pregnancy in a war situation, extermination of an ethnic group, and forcible transfer of a population. The existence of this international court is supported by a document known as the Rome Statute. The majority, but not all, of the world’s countries are signatories, also known as state parties, of the Rome Statute.

One of the most prominent courts involved in the prosecution of war criminals is the International Criminal Court (ICC), in the Hague, Netherlands.
One of the most prominent courts involved in the prosecution of war criminals is the International Criminal Court (ICC), in the Hague, Netherlands.

The International Criminal Court went into force 1 July 2002. Since its inception, the ICC has been seated at the Hague, in the Netherlands. The court is not, however, obliged to remain at that location. The court is funded by its state parties and by voluntary donations from other entities, such as international organizations.

The pre-trial division is a body of judges empowered to issue arrest warrants for suspects.
The pre-trial division is a body of judges empowered to issue arrest warrants for suspects.

According to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction is limited to cases concerning “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.” These crimes generally fall into three categories, which are genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. There is a fourth category, the crime of aggression, which the court has reserved the right to exercise jurisdiction over. However, when the court went into force in 2002, a provision had not been adopted defining that crime.

The state parties that have signed the Rome Statute recognize the International Criminal Court’s definitions of the three areas over which it has jurisdiction as the international standard. For example, genocide is recognized by all state parties as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The acts outlined for this crime include killing members of the group, imposing measures to stop babies from being born in the group, or removing children by force to another group.

The ICC cannot exercise jurisdiction over events that occurred before 1 July 2002. It also cannot exercise jurisdiction over events that happen before the Rome Statute is signed by a particular state. Since the International Criminal Court is meant to complement national governments, it does not exercise jurisdiction when bona fide investigations or criminal proceedings are under way by a national government.

The court’s structure can be narrowed to three well-defined organs. First, there is the presidency, which is composed of three judges elected by their peers to serve three-year terms. These individuals act as an administrative authority of the court.

Second, there is a judicial division which is divided into three parts. The pre-trial division is a body of judges empowered to issue arrest warrants or summons for suspects. This body also holds hearings to confirm charges when such individuals appear before the court.

The trial division hears and judges criminal cases. These judges presume that the accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt and recognizes the legal rights of the accused. If they find that the accused is guilty, they may order imprisonment and reparations. Afterward, the appeals division handles appeals made by the convicted parties and by parties who are the recipients of reparations orders.

The third organ of the court is the Office of the Prosecutor. This office receives referrals for suggested cases from state parties and the U.N. Security Council. This office may also initiate cases. If authorization for an investigation is authorized by the pre-trial division, the Office of the Prosecutor acts as investigator. When there is probable cause, this office will attempt to prosecute.

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Discussion Comments


Interestingly, the United States has not been supportive of the International Criminal Court. Bill Clinton had signed the statute, but I think waited until the last day to do it. Then, two years later, George W. Bush literally "took it back" and decided that the U.S. would have nothing to do with it.

I think this is very disappointing. The world needs the ICC. It is the only permanent international court the world has. If the U.S. was supportive of it, it would be a great role model for other countries to do the same.

Why do you think we have been so against the ICC?


How does the ICC try and prosecute criminals exactly? Won't it have to work in different countries? What if countries refuse to let the ICC enter their borders and gather evidence?

I can think of at least a handful of countries that would refuse to cooperate with the ICC.


I wonder to what extent the establishment of the International Criminal Court was influenced by crimes against humanity in that previous decade.

The ICC was formed in 2002, but I remember that the preparations began earlier, around 1998 because there was news reports made about it at that time.

That decade, from 1990 to 2000 was a very bloody decade for humanity. The Bosnian War started in 1992 and lasted for three years. The Rwandan genocide also happened around that time, in 1994 I think.

It was probably these events and thousands killed because of it that caused the international community to establish the ICC. Without an international court, the war criminals and murderers were basically getting off scot-free because no one was prosecuting them in those countries.

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