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Customary International Law and the Addition of New War Crimes to the Statute of the ICC

Published on January 2, 2018        Author: 

In addition to the activation of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression (see previous post), the recently concluded Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the Statute of the ICC, also adopted three amendments adding to the list of war crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court. These new war crimes relate to the use of prohibited weapons in international as well as non-international armed conflicts. However, in the lead-up to the ASP there was controversy regarding the wisdom and even the legality of adding to the list of war crimes. One of the concerns was that there would be fragmentation of the Rome Statute system with different crimes applicable in differing situations to different individuals. This is because under the amendment procedure to the Rome Statute (Art. 121(5)) these new crimes would not apply to nationals of, or conduct on the territory of, non-ratifying states parties. Another concern was that the new crimes (or at least some of them) are, in the view of some states, not criminalised under customary international law and thus not suitable for addition for inclusion in the ICC Statute. It is this latter issue that I focus on this post, though as I will explain later, the issue overlaps with the question of fragmentation of the Rome Statute regime. In this post, I discuss the implications of criminalising conduct under the ICC  Statute which do not amount to customary international law crimes. I take no position on whether the crimes that have been added are, or are not, crimes under customary international law (though I think few would doubt that the use of biological weapons is such a customary international crime), but explain why this is an important question that states are right to pay attention to.

The new war crimes to be inserted into the Rome Statute are as follows (see Resolution ICC-ASP/16/Res.4):

  • Employing weapons, which use microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production [to be inserted as Art. 8(2)(b)xxvii) and Art. 8(2)(e)(xvi)]
  • Employing weapons the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays [to be inserted as Art. 8(2)(b)(xxviii) and Art. 8(2((e)(xvii)];
  • Employing laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices [to be inserted as article 8(2)(b)(xxix) and Art. 8(2)(e)(xviii)].

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