International Courts of Law

Although the United Nations Security Council is politicised, as described above (, there is a developing legal framework which complies more closely with the characteristics of law, in the form of the international courts.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up to sentence high-profile rights violations in situations where a country’s own legal system is “unwilling or unable to act” – according to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, its Prosecutor, in his lecture: The International Criminal Court ten years on: An appraisal.  It provides a legal mechanism to restrain and punish political leaders who have started to oppress large sections of their own populations, particularly in cases of genocide.  It is too early to tell whether its existence will reduce the incidence of oppression in the world, but it has the advantages of operating to predefined rules, the Rome Statute, and having international support.  There have, though, been criticisms:

  • Luis Moreno-Ocampo, in his lecture cited above, outlined the reasons for prosecuting Omar Al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur – but Sudan wasn’t a signatory to the ICC, so it was a political, rather than a legal, decision.  A Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) article, The ICC vs  President Al-Bashir: A Necessary Precedent?, criticised the indictment on both a tactical and a strategic basis: it was not enforceable at the time and any failure would reduce the ICC’s power to deter further wrongdoing, there or elsewhere.
  • Richard Dowden’s article, ICC in the dock, suggested that it might not be the best way of achieving a peaceful solution; he argued that the reconciliation processes that ended several African conflicts were understood and accepted by the populations – in contrast to an attempt to obtain “a result that means nothing to their victims”.

Phil Clark, in an article Dilemmas of justice, pointed out, though,  that some of the criticisms of the ICC can be mitigated by observing its principle of complementarity to a country’s own legal system.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) settles disputes that have been referred to it, and it gives legal advice when asked.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body, whose procedure “does resemble a court or tribunal”, has a self-explanatory role in the enforcement of economic agreements.

There are other “judicial organisations” to deal with specific issues, as listed on The Hague Justice portal, and there is also an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

None of these courts has jurisdiction over countries which haven’t signed up to be bound by its rulings.  A listing of The Rome Statute in the World, for example, had 110 “States Parties” and 38 additional signatories to the ICC in November 2009, but that left 47 non-signatories (including China, India and Pakistan).  America signed it but has been ambivalent about supporting it; a Heritage Foundation article, An Inconvenient Founding: America’s Principles Applied to the ICC, gives an overview of the constitutional issues perceived by some Americans.

There are also several international human rights treaties, which are legally binding upon the countries which have signed them, and which are monitored by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  These act as a form of protection for the citizens of the countries concerned, giving access to the adjudication process of a court.



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/5362a.htm