‘Last resort:’ A final course of action, used only when all else has failed (Oxford Dictionary).

The Seventeenth Assembly of States Parties (ASP) has closed and one key takeaway is the need to have realistic expectations with respect to the role and capacity of the International Criminal Court (ICC) or ‘Court.’ This theme was woven into numerous side-events, especially those concerning complementarity and universal jurisdiction. 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute. While the ICC continues to grow in its reach and impact, the institution has inherent and purposeful limitations. A fair assessment of the Court needs to be couched in terms of its intended scope, purpose, and place in the global landscape, which is highly specific. 

At the side-event “Justice, peace and security in Africa: deepening the role of the ICC,” hosted by the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and the African Network on International Criminal Justice, Phakiso Mochochoko (Office of the Prosecutor [OTP]) emphasized that the first question should never be, “Why isn’t the ICC doing something?” Such questions can and should be asked of the state and its institutions first. The ICC was never intended to be a first-responder or a sole responder.[1]The trigger mechanism for the Court’s involvement relies on the unwillingness or inability of the concerned state to investigate and prosecute those most responsible for atrocious crimes. This requires a lack of political will, a lack of capacity, or both. The scope is intentionally and inherently limited. Several side-events at the ASP reiterated that the ICC is one judicial mechanism for accountability, and one of last resort.[2]Scholars and practitioners need to focus on states, which have a primary obligation to investigate and prosecute these crimes in the interest of peace and security.

To this end, at the side-event “Complementarity and Cooperation Revisited: What role for the ICC in supporting national and hybrid investigations and prosecutions?” hosted by Luxembourg, North Korea, and Open Society Justice Initiative, Pascal Turlan (OTP) highlighted the importance of capacity building. Capacity building refers to both the legal framework and training of personnel in domestic institutions. Pascal sketched a coordinated relationship between the ICC and national mechanisms under the auspice of ‘positive complementarity.’ The ICC is willing to engage in cooperation measures such as information sharing or to engage in mutual assistance strategies in an effort to encourage national authorities to develop cases, or to assist in the investigation or prosecution of cases.[3]As noted above, if the ICC can prosecute, they can only do so against persons who bear the greatest responsibility for the alleged crimes. It would be up to national institutions to investigate and prosecute all others responsible and hold them criminally accountable. Theoretically, positive complementarity is highly useful in this regard and it should contribute to the proliferation of accountability and justice. 

Similarly, at the event titled “Commemorating the 20thanniversary of the Rome Statute,” H.E. Kimberly Prost expressed that complementarity should involve domestic, regional, and extra-territorial jurisdictions to battle impunity. She explained that this may require innovative solutions, such as those like the new court in Central African Republic and the IIIM in Syria, for example. Judge Prost said that productive dialogue cannot begin and end with a critique of the Court. Since no state can credibly oppose justice, alternative solutions need to be pursued. The capacity of states needs to be built so that the ICC becomes redundant, as intended by the drafters of the Rome Statute. Judge Prost’s contributions reflect a ‘back to basics’ approach. Complementarity is the bedrock of the Rome Statute System but is often neglected. This subjects the ICC to criticism and claims that it is not doing enough. States should look inward first to find ways to investigate and prosecute, either independently or with cooperative assistance and support from the ICC and/or other institutional mechanisms and/or organizations.  

Similar views were expressed by Karim Kham, Alain Werner and Carmen Cheung at the side-event “Closing the impunity gap: a pragmatic approach to universal jurisdiction.” Each one of these panelists explained that extra-territorial/judicial mechanisms, ad hoc tribunals, or other similar mechanisms are not mutually exclusive with the ICC. Karim said that it is important to reiterate that the ICC does not have a monopoly on justice. He explained that the goal is to close the impunity gap by whichever way(s) possible because justice is not politicized, it is ‘everybody’s business.’ 

The ICC plays an important role in the global landscape, but as pointed out by the intervention of Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch at the side-event, “From Bemba to Rombhot: Reflections & Perspectives for the ICC in the Central African Republic,” the ‘one case, one suspect’ approach is likely insufficient for dealing with the broader realities of conflict. It is posed here that an ideal complementary schema might have national courts investigate and prosecute foot soldiers, a special/hybrid tribunal address mid-level officers and commanders, and the ICC deal with those most responsible for organizing and orchestrating the crime(s). This would be comprehensive and provide a greater possibility for accountability at all levels and sides of the conflict. Although social justice and legal justice are not the same, greater accountability and a strengthening of the rule of law at the local level can contribute to a (more) stable post-conflict environment. 

A holistic approach to justice will demand more than the ICC can provide. The Court is limited in its monetary and human resources, as well as its jurisdiction and scope. This is not to say that it has no utility or value. Rather, a more nuanced approach to complementarity can present important opportunities for justice and accountability by capacity building, strengthening domestic legal systems, and closing impunity gaps. This is an important step towards the goal of universal jurisdiction for atrocious crime. Framing critiques of the ICC within the principle of complementarity and universal jurisdiction can change the conversation in some significant and important ways. The ICC cannot do everything, nor is it supposed to. The potential role for complementary mechanisms to the ICC may be the best way to move the conversation (and the international criminal justice project) forward.   

This blogpost and my attendance at the 17thAssembly of States Parties are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


[1]The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, A/CONF.183/9 (17 July 1998): Preamble, Article 17, “The case is being investigated or prosecuted by a State which has jurisdiction over it, unless the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.”  

[2]This was a strong focus at the December 5 side-event, “Commemorating the 20thanniversary of the Rome Statute,” co-hosted by the Netherlands, Uganda, and Africa Legal Aid. This was a focus of H.E Kimberly Prost.

[3]There are limitations to this, for example the ICC will not share information if the alleged suspect could receive the death penalty, or if basic rule-of-law principles such as a right to a fair trial are not firmly established in the domestic context.

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