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December 19, 2022 Top Legal News of the Week

International justice worthy but elusive, panelists say

After the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II, global leaders reached a consensus about applying criminal penalties to acts of aggression by Japan and Germany during the war, and the concept of modern international justice culminated in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

Beth Van Schaack, U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, speaks at an ABA Law and National Security conference Nov. 18.

Beth Van Schaack, U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, speaks at an ABA Law and National Security conference Nov. 18.

Though the work of the ICC represents an important step forward, it often lacks jurisdiction in atrocity situations, and over the past 15 years hundreds of thousands of new victims have emerged in Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Ethiopia and now Ukraine. Panelists at the session “International Law and Justice: Lessons from Ukraine” at the 32nd Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law, discussed the path forward for international justice.

“The world has never been as united as it is today around the imperative of justice, and in many respects the Ukraine crisis has brought the international community together,” said Beth Van Schaack, ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. State Department.

One of the central goals of the ICC is crisis prevention for ongoing acts of extreme violence, such as the unfolding events in Ukraine, said panelist Geoff Dancy, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “The ICC is a blunt instrument for responding to crises,” he said. “We’re not able to stop leaders from engaging in extreme violence if they’ve already chosen to do so, but that doesn’t mean it should derail efforts at international justice writ large.”

Though ICC convictions are rare, Dancy said evidence shows that when the ICC starts an investigation in a particular country, domestic prosecutions of police and security forces for everyday human rights violations ramp up. 

Sometimes efforts to achieve international justice fail, such as in Syria, said moderator Anna Cave, executive director of the Center for National Security at Georgetown University Law Center. But, as Van Schaack pointed out, the ICC does not have jurisdiction there and Russia, acting as Syria’s patron on the U.N. Security Council, exercised its veto power in 2014 when the question of an ICC referral came up. “We were at an impasse when it came to justice,” she said.

Looking ahead to future challenges to achieving international justice, Dancy said he worries about the desensitizing effects of nonideological violence, such as mass shootings seen with more frequency in the United States. “We’ve got to win back the idea that our way of running the show ─ liberal democracy mixed with multilateralism ─ is morally superior,” Dancy said.

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