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The ICC’s Impact on National Justice: Can the ICC Prosecutor Catalyze Domestic Cases?

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Joint Symposium with Justice in Conflict on Human Rights Watch’s Report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a court of last resort. Under the court’s treaty, the Rome Statute, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, the world’s worst crimes are admissible before the ICC only if national authorities do not genuinely investigate and prosecute cases. Far from simply a jurisdictional limitation, this principle of “complementarity” transforms the ICC from a single institution into a broader system for prosecuting international crimes, rooted in national courts.

Bolstering national proceedings is crucial to giving full effect to the Rome Statute system. It’s also necessary to broaden victims’ access to justice. The number of situations in which the ICC should act is probably far greater than the court’s founders envisioned. The ICC’s limited resources—provided all too sparingly by its member countries—mean it is struggling to keep up.

More attention should be paid to the ICC’s potential as an active player on national justice. Under the concept of “positive complementarity” it can serve as part of a wide array of efforts to press and support national authorities to carry out genuine investigations and prosecutions. The ICC is not a development agency, but it can lend expertise, broker assistance between other actors, and maintain focus on the need for accountability.

This is the case when the ICC opens its own investigations, as there will be a need for additional domestic investigations and prosecutions to bring comprehensive accountability. But the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has a particularly important role to play when it is still considering whether to open an investigation, during “preliminary examinations.”

This is because the prosecutor’s office has unique leverage in some of these preliminary examinations. If national authorities have an interest in avoiding ICC intervention, they can do that by conducting genuine national proceedings. By making the most of this leverage, the prosecutor’s office can be an effective catalyst for justice. The office recognizes that opportunity and has made it a policy goal to encourage national proceedings when it is feasible.

Human Rights Watch supports these efforts, given that they could help extend the reach of justice. But building on a set of 2011 recommendations, we wanted to take a fresh look at whether and how this policy is working, with a view toward strengthening its effect.

Our findings are set out in a May 2018 report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice; Lessons from Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, and the United Kingdom. 

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