Law or War: The Creation of the International Criminal Court

The 15-minute film module, Law or War: The Creation of the International Criminal Court (below), explores the creation of the first permanent international court in history created to investigate and prosecute individual perpetrators, no matter how powerful, for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. When the court was established in 2002, the idea of international criminal justice was still relatively new. As long ago as 1899, 26 nations convened for an International Peace Conference, where they drafted the Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land, one of the first formal statements of international laws related to war and war crimes. Nearly 50 years later, it took the atrocity of the Nazi Holocaust to bring the international community together to hold perpetrators responsible for war crimes. The prosecution of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg Tribunals marks the first time that an international criminal court was established. This tribunal set a precedent for the creation of later temporary tribunals, such as the tribunals for perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The headquarters of the International Criminal Court, the Hague, Netherlands.

In the hope of deterring future crimes, representatives from a wide range of nations met under the auspices of the United Nations to craft a draft treaty for a permanent international criminal court. That draft was formally presented at a 1998 conference in Rome, now known as the Rome Conference. A total of 120 national representatives voted for the treaty, but the Court could only become operational after a minimum of 60 nations ratified the treaty through their state legislatures—a goal that was accomplished in 2002. As the International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigating its first cases in 2004, the international community has had to confront difficult decisions about how to balance important, yet often competing, values of justice, peace, and sovereignty.


  • prosecute : To prosecute is to bring legal charges against a person. The Office of the Prosecutor includes investigators, who determine if there is sufficient evidence to change someone with a crime, and lawyers, who bring the case to trial. At the International Criminal Court, the prosecutor is the person who decides if the ICC can take a case. If so, the prosecutor leads the legal investigation of this case. If sufficient evidence is found, the prosecutor asks the judges to issue a formal indictment
  • perpetrators : Someone who commits crimes and other acts of wrongdoing.
  • genocide : According to the Rome Statute, genocide means any acts committed with the intent to destroy an ethnic, racial, national, or religious group.
  • war crimes : Violations of the rules of war as defined by the Geneva Convention. These could include torture, taking of hostages, committing any form of sexual violence, and excessive brutality.
  • crimes against humanity : According to the Rome Statute, the term “crimes against humanity” refers to any acts committed as part of a widespread or systemic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.
  • international criminal court : The International Criminal Court is a permanent, independent judicial body established in 2002. The court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. It is headquartered in The Hague, The Netherlands.
  • United Nations : An international organization established in 1945 that aims to maintain peace throughout the world.
  • sovereignty : Freedom from external control, usually referring to a nation or state being able to control its own affairs. National governments claim to have sovereignty—the authority to create and enforce laws—within their own borders without foreign interference.

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