On June 27, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague handed down arrest warrants against Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, his son and de facto prime minister Saif al-Islam, and his brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi, head of Libyan military intelligence. The news was mostly met with a shrug; the New York Times ran its story on the indictments on page A11.
Popular cynicism about the International Criminal Court and its importance to messy international conflicts like Libya is the easiest game in town, particularly if the town in question is Washington. The United States has steadfastly refused to join the court (whose member countries now number 116, including all NATO allies except Turkey), giving skeptics official license to throw grenades at the tribunal's often-uphill struggles to investigate atrocity crimes, arrest indicted fugitives, and conduct politically sensitive and protracted trials under the terms of due process. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute told CNN, "The ICC's arrest warrant symbolizes the dirty underside of international law. … [It] tells Qaddafi to fight to the death."
Why, then, should anyone bother with the ICC in a conflict where NATO's military might, backing up a resilient rebel movement, surely will be the decisive factor in toppling a tiresome dictator? Because there's more at stake here than Libya, or the fate of a single loathsome war criminal and his associates.
International judicial intervention -- a term I introduced to Foreign Policy in an article of the same name 15 years ago -- has succeeded in its plodding way at humbling and bringing to justice one tyrant after another, along with their partners in genocide, crimes against humanity, and massive war crimes. Yes, international justice takes time; indicted leaders threaten and bully and defy tribunals as a matter of course (even though the bravado rarely lasts); and there is always the risk that an international prosecutor might scrutinize one of your own.
But if international justice requires patience and some risk, it also holds more lasting rewards. Most of the surviving top leaders who orchestrated atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone in recent decades have been apprehended and brought to justice before international criminal tribunals -- and, in the case of Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime, an internationalized domestic court that today is holding its own Nuremberg-style trial. Peace now prevails in all four of these places in large part because the really bad seeds have been removed and important historical lessons about justice and the rule of law have taken root, particularly among younger generations. The counterfactual that apprehending these criminals somehow places these societies at greater risk of dissolution, or that domestic legal systems will fill the void, has routinely been proved wrong. Serbian courts never found the will to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, or Ratko Mladic, but the Hague Tribunal did. Sierra Leone's judiciary remains on life support, and the prosecutions -- including that of Liberian leader Charles Taylor -- before the international Special Court for Sierra Leone have not resurrected the rebel armies in that country.
To be sure, the system doesn't have a perfect record. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur but remains at large, ruling his country and traveling outside of it with flashes of impunity. Joseph Kony, the indicted commander in chief of Uganda's murderous Lord's Resistance Army, reportedly roams freely across several central African countries. But these failures must be seen in context. Four out of five indicted leaders from the Democratic Republic of the Congo now reside at the detention center in The Hague. Popular rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, indicted for orchestrating mass rapes in the Central African Republic, is standing trial now. Three out of six indicted leaders from Sudan have faced the court, though they are from the rebel side of the Darfur conflict. All six indicted leaders from Kenya, charged with crimes against humanity during the violent aftermath of the 2007 election, have appeared voluntarily in The Hague and await confirmation of the charges against them by the judges. Ivory Coast's former President Laurent Gbagbo is in domestic custody, and a future flight north to the land of tulips might await him. Most remarkably, the court has accomplished all of this without its own police force.