SOAS University of London

SOAS scholar’s new study suggests the International Criminal Court is on the brink of collapse

9 November 2018

Dr Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS University of London, has published a new book which examines the International Criminal Court (ICC) and suggests that it is failing in all aspects of its operations and may soon collapse.

The book, Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics (Cambridge University Press), is based on 11 years of field research and more than 650 interviews with ICC officials, African political and civil society leaders and everyday citizens in conflict-affected countries.

Among the book’s major claims:

  • The ICC’s location in The Hague and its reliance on Western investigators with little or no previous experience in the warzones where they now operate (especially in Africa) have led to shoddy evidence-gathering on the ground. As a result, the Court has suffered a string of abandoned cases and collapsed trials. This is increasing disenchantment even among some of the ICC’s most ardent supporters.
  • One of the most damaging realisations about the ICC after its first 16 years is that it is structurally incapable of effectively investigating and prosecuting sitting members of governments. It is in reality only a court for addressing crimes by non-state actors such as rebel commanders or already deposed political leaders.
  • This will encourage political and military elites around the world to cling to power, knowing that while they hold office they can protect themselves from prosecution. As witnessed with former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jean-Pierre Bemba, though, as soon as they lose power they risk being sent to The Hague. This lesson – stay in power to avoid prosecution - is also being learnt by other leaders who have attracted the ICC’s attention in places such as Syria, Myanmar, Burundi, Colombia and Afghanistan.
  • The ICC’s inability to address government crimes has led to a severe legitimacy deficit in places such as Uganda, the DRC, Kenya and Central African Republic, where state actors are known to have committed widespread atrocities. In these situations, the ICC has either focused singularly on rebel crimes or failed to gather sufficient evidence to bring government suspects to trial. Local communities in many African states express extreme frustration with the ICC’s inability to address state crimes and are increasingly refusing to cooperate with the Court during its investigations.
  • Meanwhile, the ICC has produced a range of negative effects for the African societies where it has intervened. The Court has undermined African judiciaries by stealing cases that were already being handled domestically (eg. in the DRC and Côte d’Ivoire) or that could have been prosecuted by national courts (eg. in Uganda). The ICC has also jeopardised peace talks by issuing arrest warrants for rebel leaders taking part in negotiations (in Uganda and the DRC) and demobilisation programmes where the threat of prosecution has deterred many combatants from laying down their arms (in Uganda, the DRC, CAR and Mali). In these African societies, the ICC is making domestic justice and lasting peace less, rather than more, likely.
  • In short, the ICC has failed on its own terms and on the terms of local populations affected by mass violence. Without a major rethink of how the Court addresses severe crimes in Africa and elsewhere, it will continue to struggle to conduct effective investigations and to help improve the lives of local people. This will see the ICC’s backers become increasingly disillusioned, raising serious questions about how much longer the Court can survive.

Further details of Distant Justice can be found on the publisher’s website.

Dr Clark will launch the book at SOAS, at an event chaired by SOAS director Baroness Valerie Amos, on Tuesday, 13 November 2018. Further details can be found on the event page.