• English

What is the International Criminal Court?

Established in 2002 and based in The Hague, the ICC is a criminal court that can bring cases against individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Most recently, on Monday it issued a request for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three leaders of Hamas, the de facto authorities in Gaza.

The warrants – which must now be formally approved by the ICC’s judges – are related to alleged war crimes stemming from the seven month-long war in Gaza triggered by the Hamas-led attacks in Israel.

Here are five facts about the ICC and how it is helping build a more just world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the General Assembly in September 2023.
UN News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the General Assembly in September 2023.

1. Trying the gravest crimes

The ICC was created with the “millions of children, women and men” in mind who “have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”.

It is the world’s first permanent, treaty-based international criminal court to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and the crime of aggression.

The court has successfully prosecuted individuals for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, including in Srebrenica, and has resolved cases of significance for international justice, shedding light on the crimes of using child soldiers, the destruction of cultural heritage, sexual violence or attacks of innocent civilians. Through its judgements in exemplary cases, it is gradually building authoritative case law.

The court has investigated some of the world’s most violent conflicts, including in Darfur, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gaza, Georgia and Ukraine. It currently holds public hearings, with 31 cases on its docket, and its warrant list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as individuals in Libya.

However, issuing a warrant and apprehending suspects is challenging. The court has no police to enforce its warrants and depends on its member States to implement its orders. Most of the individuals indicted by the court have been from African countries.

A child with severe acute malnutrition and dehydration is treated at a field hospital in southern Gaza in April 2024.
© WHO

A child with severe acute malnutrition and dehydration is treated at a field hospital in southern Gaza in April 2024.

2. Involving victims

On any given day, if you watch ICC proceedings, you’ll likely hear witness testimonies or hear a lawyer representing victims’ views in court. Their accounts are essential to the judicial process.

The court does not only try and punish those responsible for the most serious crimes, but also ensures that the voices of the victims are heard. Victims are those who have suffered harm as a result of the commission of any crime within the court’s jurisdiction.

Victims participate in all stages of ICC judicial proceedings. More than 10,000 victims of atrocities have participated in proceedings, and the court maintains direct contact with communities affected by crimes within its jurisdiction through outreach programmes.

The court also seeks to protect the safety and physical and psychological integrity of victims and witnesses. Although victims cannot bring cases, they can bring information to the Prosecutor, including to decide whether to open an investigation.

The ICC Trust Fund for Victims is currently making the Court’s first orders on reparations a reality, including with demands for reparations to victims and their families in the DRC. Through its assistance programmes, the Trust Fund has also provided physical, psychological and socioeconomic support to more than 450,000 victims.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the landfill site in Tarhunah, Libya, where a number of mass graves had been identified. (file)
ICC

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the landfill site in Tarhunah, Libya, where a number of mass graves had been identified. (file)

3. Ensuring fair trials

All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt before the ICC. Each defendant is entitled to public and impartial proceedings.

At the ICC, suspects and accused persons have critical rights, including: to be informed of the charges; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence; to be tried without undue delay; to freely choose a lawyer; and to receive exculpatory evidence from the Prosecutor.

Among these rights is the right to follow the proceedings in a language the accused fully understands. This has led to the court hiring specialised interpreters and translators in more than 40 languages, sometimes using, simultaneously, four languages during the same hearing.

In its first 20 years, participants were faced with a diversity of new substantive and procedural challenges, miles away from the crime scenes. In addition, the crimes prosecuted by the ICC are of a specific nature and often mass crimes requiring important amount of evidence and a lot of efforts to ensure the safety of the witnesses. The proceedings are complex, and there are many matters that need to be resolved behind the scenes over the course of a case.

Dorika, a survivor of rape in North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file)
Finbarr O’Reilly

Dorika, a survivor of rape in North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file)

4. Complementing national courts

The court does not replace national courts. It is a court of last resort. States have the primary responsibility to investigate, try and punish the perpetrators of the most serious crimes.

The court will only step in if the State in which serious crimes under the court’s jurisdiction have been committed is unwilling or unable to genuinely address those. 

Serious violence is escalating rapidly around the world. The court’s resources remain limited, and it can only deal with a small number of cases at the same time. The court also works hand in hand with national and international tribunals.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, addresses the General Assembly in 2015.
UN Photo/Cia Pak

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, addresses the General Assembly in 2015.

5. Building more support for justice

With the support of more than 120 States Parties, from all continents, the ICC has established itself as a permanent and independent judicial institution.

But, unlike national judicial systems, the court does not have its own police. It depends on the cooperation of States, including to implement its arrest warrants or summonses.

Nor does the court have territory to relocate witnesses who are at risk. The ICC thus depends, to a large extent, on the support and cooperation of States.

How is the ICJ different from the ICC?

There is frequent confusion between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Here’s an overview at how they differ:

A gavel in a courtroom.
UNODC

  • The simplest way to explain the difference is that ICJ cases involve countries, and the ICC is a criminal court, which brings cases against individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity. 
  • While the ICJ is an organ of the United Nations, the ICC is legally independent of the UN, although it is endorsed by the General Assembly.
  • While not all 193 UN Member States are parties to the ICC, it can launch investigations and open cases related to alleged crimes committed on the territory or by a national of a State party to the ICC or of a State that has accepted its jurisdiction.
  • Learn more about the ICJ in our explainer.

Get help now

Send a message with a description of your problem and possible ways of assistance and we will contact you as soon as we consider your problem.

    [recaptcha class:captcha]