International Justice and the Prevention of Atrocity

Senior Policy Fellow

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has become the first serving head of state to come before the International Criminal Court (ICC) where he faces charges of crimes against humanity. The case in The Hague – which faces possible collapse amid claims the Kenyan government is withholding evidence – could test the limits of international justice. Meanwhile atrocities apparently committed in Syria by the Assad regime and rebel groups including Islamic State seem beyond the reach of the ICC after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to give the Court jurisdiction.

Are the ideals of international justice out of touch with the realities of global power politics? How far is the effort to hold war criminals accountable compatible with the difficult compromises necessary to bring violent conflicts to an end? How can European countries best pursue the twin goals of ending atrocities and pursuing justice? These topical questions are explored in a this report, by senior policy fellow Anthony Dworkin.

The report argues that European countries must develop better coordinated policies on justice and atrocity prevention. Too often decisions on justice are taken in isolation from wider foreign policy goals. This risks putting courts in a position where they may present an obstacle to peace but it also risks leaving courts isolated as countries fail to support their work in practice.

Among the specific recommendations of the report are:

  • States should avoid the use of justice as a tool to affect the dynamics of conflict.
  • The UN Security Council should only refer situations to the ICC in exceptional cases and when it is confident the UN will not later endorse political initiatives which ignore the Court’s demands.
  • States should be wary of the idea that referrals always help the credibility of the ICC.
  • States should devote more attention to ensuring peace agreements allow space for later accountability and the future growth of the rule of law, including through excluding suspected war criminals from power.

Anthony Dworkin says, “European countries are right to support the principle of accountability, but they risk harming the cause both of justice and peace if they do not coordinate their policies more effectively. There is no use expecting courts to build the global rule of law if their efforts go beyond what countries are willing to support in their broader foreign policy.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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