Why the International Criminal Court Must Pretend to Ignore Politics

| March 27, 2012

Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutes crimes of mass violence that are inherently political in nature, its actions will inevitably have political consequences about which the prosecutor and judges should be as well informed as possible. As some of the other contributors to this roundtable note, the ICC’s actions and inactions may even have life-and-death consequences in the real world. It is ethically irresponsible for the ICC’s officers to ignore those concerns. At the same time, the court’s moral and legal authority derives entirely from its claim that it applies universal rules wherever it has jurisdiction. In order for the International Criminal Court to build legitimacy over time, it must both act and be seen to act in a neutral way that transcends political pressures. Rule-of-law courts do not derive their authority from their ability to command the use of force. Nor do they have the legitimacy of elected political officials who act as the representatives of a political community. The legitimacy of courts is a function of their claim to uphold universal rules of law that the community has chosen to adopt, regardless of whether doing so is popular or even prudent in a particular case with particular constituencies. Consequently, court officers in their formal actions—including prosecutorial requests for investigations, issuing arrest warrants, and filing charges, as well as in the judges’ decisions on those questions—should always ground the rationale for their decisions in the pretense that they act only to uphold the law and without regard for political considerations.

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Category: Essay, Global Governance, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 26.1, Roundtable: The Political Ethics of the International Criminal Court

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