The Role of the International Criminal Court

The ICC was created to bring justice to the world’s worst war criminals, but debate over the court still rages.

Judges are pictured in the courtroom during the trial of Bosco Ntaganda.
Judges are pictured in the courtroom during the trial of Bosco Ntaganda. Bas Czerwinski/Reuters

WRITTEN BY Claire Klobucista

UPDATED Last updated March 28, 2022 2:00 pm (EST)


  • The ICC seeks to investigate and prosecute those responsible for grave offenses such as genocide and war crimes.
  • Dozens of countries are not ICC members, including China, India, Russia, and the United States.
  • The court has angered nonmembers by launching probes into possible war crimes in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and Ukraine.


The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, seeks to hold to account those guilty of some of the world’s worst crimes. Champions of the court say it deters would-be war criminals, bolsters the rule of law, and offers justice to victims of atrocities. But, since its inception, the court has faced considerable setbacks. It has been unable to gain the support of major powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, who say it undermines national sovereignty. Two countries have withdrawn from the court, and many African governments complain that the court has singled out Africa. U.S. opposition to the ICC hardened under President Donald Trump, and although the Joe Biden administration has taken a more conciliatory approach, tensions remain.

What are the court’s origins?

In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied powers launched the first international war crimes tribunal, known as the Nuremberg Trials, to prosecute top Nazi officials. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that many governments coalesced around the idea of a permanent court to hold perpetrators to account for the world’s most serious crimes. The United Nations had previously set up ad hoc international criminal tribunals to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but many international law experts considered them inefficient and inadequate deterrents.

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The Role of the International Criminal Court in Ending Impunity and Establishing the Rule of Law

Author Sang-Hyun Song, President of the International Criminal Court.

December 2012, No. 4 Vol. XLIX, Delivering Justice 

Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the International Community as a whole and thus contribute to the prevention of such crimes

Preamble of the Rome Statute

On 24 September 2012, the United Nations General Assembly held a High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels during which numerous delegates spoke about the importance of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the Declaration adopted at the meeting, States recognized “the role of the International Criminal Court in a multilateral system that aims to end impunity and establish the rule of law”.1 In my remarks to the Assembly on 1 November 2012, I welcomed this statement, which echoed many earlier characterizations of the Court’s role.2

The crux of the ICC role lies in enforcing and inducing compliance with specific norms of international law aimed at outlawing and preventing mass violence.

Confronted with the extensive perpetration of unspeakable atrocities after the Second World War, the international community articulated an unparalleled call for justice. It sought to put an end to such crimes through, inter alia, the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the four Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles.

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