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Frequently Asked Questions about the International Criminal Court

Author: Claire Calzonetti
Updated July 23, 2012

How did the court begin?

The concept of an international court was first discussed in the aftermath of World War II. However, it wasn't until the 1990s that the first ad hoc international criminal tribunals were set up to deal with war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The ad hoc tribunals were limited in their efficiency and deterrent capability, which spurred the need for a permanent court to deal with the world's most serious crimes. A statute to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC) for creating such a body was approved at a United Nations (UN) conference in Rome on July 17, 1998. After receiving more than sixty ratifications by April 2002, the treaty became legal on July 1, 2002. On March 11, 2003, the ICC opened with Canadian Philippe Kirsch as judge-president, and Elizabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica and Akua Kuenyenia of Ghana as vice presidents.

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Who does the court aim to prosecute?

The ICC seeks to try individuals who perpetrate the world's most serious crimes, such as genocide (the intentional and systematic annihilation of an ethnic, racial, or religious group) war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. War crimes are violations of the international Geneva Convention to protect prisoners of war, as well as other laws that apply to international armed conflict. Crimes against humanity include those crimes that systematically exterminate, enslave, torture, rape, and persecute victims based on political, gender, religious, ethnic, national, or cultural differences. Crimes of aggression consist of the use of armed force by a state against the territorial integrity, sovereignty, or political independence of another state, or violations of the Charter of the United Nations.

What is the relationship between the United States and the ICC?

At the time of statute negotiations, the United States opposed the court, fearing U.S. soldiers could be subject to trivial or politically motivated prosecutions. After the establishment of the court, the United States insisted on immunity for all its military personnel operating in UN peacekeeping missions, particularly in East Timor and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This immunity was denied in East Timor. However, after increased pressure from the U.S. veto of a UN-extended peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina--and a threat to block future UN missions, starting with Bosnia, if the Security Council did not accept the terms of immunity--Washington was granted a one-year exemption from prosecution to be renewed every year, as a compromise. The United States also formed bilateral agreements with other nations obliging them not to hand over U.S. personnel to the ICC; in 2002, Congress passed the American Service Member's Protection Act, authorizing the president to use all means necessary to free U.S. personnel detained by the ICC. Though former President Bill Clinton signed the treaty at the end of his second term, President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. signature in 2002.

What other countries are not involved?

Seven countries voted against the statute: China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, the United States, and Yemen. China objected on grounds that "the statute is an attempt to interfere with the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation." Other non-members include India, Iran, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey. While most Western European and South American countries are signatories, there are only two Arab nation members—Jordan and Tunisia. There are eighteen Asian members of the ICC.

What cases are on the docket now?

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) has been referred cases from Uganda, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition, the UN Security Council gave its first referral for the Darfur region of Sudan to the OTP in March 2005, followed in 2011 by a unanimous referral for Libya. The OTP is conducting investigations in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Libya. The investigation in the Democratic Republic of Congo resulted in the July 22, 2012 sentencing of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to fourteen years in prison for war crimes, the first ICC sentencing. The OTP also opened investigations proprio motu in Cote d'Ivoire in 2011, after the country reconfirmed its acceptance of the ICC's jurisdiction, and in Kenya, after the prosecutor's request to open investigations into the post-election violence was granted in 2010.

What is the relationship between the International Court and the national courts?

The ICC is based on a principle of complementarity. This means that the ICC can only act when a national court is unable or unwilling to carry out a prosecution itself because the ICC was not created to supplant the authority of the national courts. However, when a state's legal system collapses or when a government is a perpetrator of heinous crimes, the ICC can exercise jurisdiction.

What is the difference between the ICC and other international courts such as the international criminal tribunals and the UN’s International Court of Justice?

The international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia can only try individuals who committed crimes against humanity in those territories over a specific period of time. The International Criminal Court, on the other hand, can rule on all crimes committed against humanity regardless of its location so long as they have occurred after July 1, 2002. The role of the International Court of Justice is to rule on arguments that occur between governments. Unlike the International Criminal Court, it does not have the ability to try individuals.

Who funds the court?

The ICC, as an independent body, is funded primarily by its member states. The contributions of each state are determined by the same method used by the UN, which roughly corresponds with a country's income. Additional funding is provided by voluntary government contributions, international organizations, individuals, corporations, and other entities. The United Nations may provide funding if it is approved by the General Assembly and is related to a "situation" referred to the court by the Security Council.

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