High Crimes and Misconceptions: The ICC and Non-Party States

By Morris, Madeline | Law and Contemporary Problems, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

High Crimes and Misconceptions: The ICC and Non-Party States


Morris, Madeline, Law and Contemporary Problems


MADELINE MORRIS [*]

I

INTRODUCTION

The Rome Treaty for an International Criminal Court ("ICC") [1] provides for the establishment of an international court with jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. [2] Those crimes often are committed by or with the approval of governments. It is unlikely that a government sponsoring genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity would consent to the prosecution of its national for his or her participation. Therein lies the problem with an international criminal court that may exercise jurisdiction only if the defendant's state of nationality consents. The very states that are most likely to be implicated in serious international crimes are the least likely to grant jurisdiction over their nationals to an international court.

The ICC Treaty avoids the dismal prospect of an international criminal court that cannot obtain jurisdiction over international criminals. The treaty provides that the ICC may exercise jurisdiction even over nationals of states that are not parties to the Treaty and have not otherwise consented to the court's jurisdiction. Article 12 provides that, in addition to jurisdiction based on Security Council action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter and jurisdiction based on consent by the defendant's state of nationality, the ICC will have jurisdiction to prosecute the national of any state when crimes within the court's subject-matter jurisdiction are committed on the territory of a state that is a party to the treaty or that consents to ICC jurisdiction for that case. That territorial basis would empower the court to exercise jurisdiction even in cases where the defendant's state of nationality is not a party to the treaty and does not consent to the exercise of jurisdiction. [3]

The United States has objected to the ICC Treaty on the ground that, by purporting to confer upon the court jurisdiction over the nationals of non-consenting non-party states, the treaty would bind non-parties in contravention of the law of treaties. [4] This objection has given rise to a heated controversy that has focused on the particulars of the international law of treaties and of jurisdiction. On close inspection, however, we can detect a more basic issue struggling to make its way to the surface.

The fundamental issue concerns the nature of the ICC as an international institution. The jurisdictional structure of the ICC is based on a view of the ICC as a criminal court, tout court. In this view, the job of the ICC is to adjudicate the guilt or innocence of individuals accused of recognized international crimes. With this model in mind, it makes sense to give the court meaningful powers of compulsory jurisdiction, lest perpetrators of serious international crimes should escape justice. From this perspective one might reason that, if the court's subject-matter jurisdiction is limited to established international crimes and the process of the court is fair, then no state-whether party or non-party-should have legitimate objections to the court's exercise of jurisdiction over its nationals.

The deficiency of this approach is that it reflects only one of the two types of cases that the ICC will be called upon to decide. In addition to the cases that are concerned solely with individual culpability, there will be ICC cases that focus on the lawfulness of official acts of states. Even while individuals, and not states, will be named in ICC indictments, there will be cases in which those individuals are indicted for official acts taken pursuant to state policy and under state authority. These official-act cases may well include cases in which an official state act is characterized as criminal by the ICC prosecutor (acting, very possibly, on a referral from an aggrieved state), while the state whose national is being prosecuted maintains that the act was lawful. One can readily imagine ICC cases in which the act forming the basis for the indictment was a military intervention, deployment of a particular weapon, recourse to a certain method of warfare, or other official conduct that the responsible s tate maintains was lawful.

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