Academic journal article Global Governance

The Relationship between the ICC and the UN Security Council

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Relationship between the ICC and the UN Security Council

Article excerpt

THE POWER OF THE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL TO REFER COUNTRY situations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been hailed, particularly among international human rights activists, as a chance to expand the reach of international criminal justice by offering the opportunity to hold accountable perpetrators of atrocities who might otherwise be exempt from prosecution and punishment. The historic referral of the situation in Darfur in March 2003 was widely welcomed as an important step in the fight against impunity as was the Security Council's later, and more controversial, referral of Libya in February 2011. In principle the expansion of the reach of accountability is something to be welcomed, but it is important to recognize the costs of this expansion as well as the danger that they may outweigh the intended benefits.

When the ICC was established in 1998, it was heralded as a significant step forward for international justice, a permanent court that would aid in the fight against impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and eventually aggression, and that would expand the reach of international justice beyond the hybrid and ad hoc mechanisms that had been established in the preceding years. To date, 122 states have become parties to the Rome Statute, accepting the ICC's jurisdiction over humanity's worst crimes, albeit in a form that is complementary or secondary to the jurisdiction of national courts. The Rome Statute includes a number of provisions that are particularly celebrated in the human rights community, not least Article 13(b) that grants the Security Council the power to refer country situations to the court, thereby placing even nonsignatory states under the court's jurisdiction in cases where the Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, finds a threat to international peace and security. This, in a sense, simply confirms the powers previously exercised by the Council when it created the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, among others. But referrals to the ICC engage a whole new set of issues.

Along with the referral power, the Security Council was also granted powers to defer an ICC investigation or prosecution for a renewable period of twelve months under Article 16. Unsurprisingly, this provision has been far more contentious among those seeking to advance the legal protection of human rights, and international criminal justice as a whole, with many viewing it as providing an unwelcome opportunity for political interference in a judicial body as well as reducing the scope for accountability.

So far, the Security Council has referred only two cases to the ICC--those of Darfur in 2005 and Libya in 2011--and has not yet exercised its Article 16 deferral powers to stay an active investigation or prosecution. In the cases of both Sudan and Libya, the Council's decision to act in the face of evidence of significant and widespread human rights violations was, particularly in the West, largely applauded by those who have actively supported the development of human rights and international criminal tribunals. Both cases demonstrate the primary benefit of Council referrals, which is that they expand the reach of accountability to cases where the ICC would normally not have access--cases where the suspects are either not nationals of a country that has ratified the Rome Statute, or where the crimes under scrutiny were not committed on the territory of a ratifying party. Yet for all the good that Security Council referrals do in expanding accountability and combating impunity, there is a danger they could, and already do, undermine the wider aims of international criminal justice. Such referrals not only could erode the legal principles at the heart of this project, not least the fundamental tenets of the rule of law, but also on a more practical level could provoke a backlash against the ICC over the perceived use of international justice as a bargaining chip or tool to gain political powers. …

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