cotler3_JUAN VRIJDAGAFP via Getty Images_ICC Juan Vrijdag/AFP via Getty Images

The International Criminal Court at 20

As the permanent venue for pursuing accountability for those who commit mass atrocities, the International Criminal Court is the crown jewel of the international justice system. But with its credibility having been eroded in recent years, stronger complementary policies are needed to help it fulfill its mission.

OTTAWA – This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first session of the International Criminal Court under the Rome Statute, a major milestone in the effort to end impunity for mass atrocities. The ICC’s first generation of operation shows how much it is needed – and what more needs to be done to maximize its impact.

The concept of international justice rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust, and was first put into practice at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders in 1945. A newfound focus on the individual – on the civilian who deserves protection, and on the perpetrator who deserves punishment – marked a decisive shift away from a system in which heads of state had a license to kill or torture anyone within their borders. The idea of individual criminal responsibility for mass atrocities challenged the old notion of unfettered state sovereignty and its animating ethos that “might makes right.”

Efforts to achieve accountability for mass atrocities have continued in various forms, including through ad hoc special tribunals established by the United Nations Security Council. But as a permanent venue for securing justice for victims and accountability for violators, the ICC is the crown jewel of the current system. It continues to represent the greatest hope for international justice.