In a time where horrible atrocities continue seemingly unabated in Nigeria, Syria, South Sudan, and beyond, we find ourselves wondering whether our global institutions could be doing more to prevent them. Take, for instance, the International Criminal Court. In the preamble to the Rome Statute in which it was founded, it is said to be both “[d]etermined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and…to contribute to the prevention of such crimes”. Over ten years after its founding, is the ICC actually deterring crime? Or do these atrocities prove the ICC is failing?
The logic of the international criminal justice system preventing crime works on two prongs. First, there’s prosecutorial deterrence. As the likelihood of prosecution and the associated punishments (e.g., fines, prison sentences, etc.) goes up, crime goes down. The second form of deterrence is social. Those who violate the law may face stigmas associated with their crimes whether they are prosecuted or not; they may be shamed or shunned, and they may be excluded from profitable relationships domestically or internationally.
Is the International Criminal Court actually deterring crime on either of these models? Yes, with some caveats.