Trials as Messages of Justice: What Should Be Expected of International Criminal Courts?

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In January 2016, Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced the opening of the court’s tenth and most recent country investigation, into alleged crimes perpetrated in Georgia during the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The crimes to be investigated may include murder, destroying enemy property, attacks on a peacekeeping mission, deportation, and ethnic persecution. Bensouda intends to make arrests, put suspects on trial, and, if they are found guilty, have them convicted and punished. Meanwhile, even as Bensouda prepared this newest case, the ICC was still prosecuting a suspect in the court’s very first investigation, from 2004, against Dominic Ongwen, a commander of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. These two cases can thus serve as bookends to the ICC’s short history, illustrating the long arc between initial investigations and eventual trials, and highlighting the complexity and contingency of international criminal justice.

In this article we ask what—if anything—is the point of all this effort, and what can and should we expect from international criminal courts? After more than a decade of work, the accomplishments of the International Criminal Court are highly contested. The court has been accused of bias, of spoiling peace negotiations, of hindering successful transitions to democracy, and of being disconnected from the needs of conflict-affected populations. We will not address these controversies here. Instead we focus on a more theoretical question: How can international trial and punishment constitute a suitable response to episodes of mass violence?

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Category: Article, Global Governance, Issue 30.4

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