Do International Criminal Tribunals Deter or Exacerbate Humanitarian Atrocities?


Contemporary justifications for international criminal tribunals (ICTs), especially the permanent International Criminal Court, often stress the role of such tribunals in deterring future humanitarian atrocities. But hardly any academic commentary has attempted to explore in depth this deterrence rationale. This Article utilizes economic models of deterrence to analyze whether a potential perpetrator of humanitarian atrocities would likely be deterred by the risk of future prosecution by an ICT. According to the economic theory of deterrence, two factors—certainty and severity of punishment—are central to the reduction of crime after taking into account a particular individual's preference for risk. In the context of a possible ICT prosecution, isolating the pool of individuals likely to commit humanitarian atrocities is difficult but not insurmountable. Given that international tribunals are not likely to have independent police powers in the foreseeable future, the actors most likely to face prosecution are individuals in weak states who have failed politically. In other words, the likely pool will be composed of individuals in weak states who have been forced from political power by local or foreign forces. Examining evidence concerning the fates of failed coup plotters and dictators in Africa—a group that represents a pool of likely perpetrators of atrocities—we show that the probability that this pool of individuals will be subject to a range of other legal and extra-legal sanctions is quite high. Moreover, the severity of the sanctions these individuals are likely to face—death, life imprisonment, and torture—is also likely to be higher than those imposed by an ICT. Thus, prosecution by an ICT will often serve as a weaker substitute, rather than a complement, to pre-existing sanctions. In one situation, however, the threat of ICT prosecution is likely to complement other possible sanctions and serve as a deterrent—where the perpetrator is unlikely to be subject to other sanctions because he is considered to be politically indispensable. But in such circumstances, the ex ante benefits of deterrence from ICT prosecution will likely be outweighed by the ex post harms of prosecuting a spoiler—an individual whose prosecution is likely to generate local political instability. In other words, the prospect of prosecution by an ICT may sometimes exacerbate the risks of humanitarian atrocities. Finally, prosecution by an ICT may also exacerbate conflicts through apolitical opportunism effect in which local politicians will have an incentive to free-ride off ICT efforts and turn a blind eye to the kinds of institutional reforms that are more likely to prevent future atrocities.


International courts -- Political aspects, International law, Punishment in crime deterrence, Genocide, Economics & international law, International Criminal Court



Julian Ku (Hofstra University School of Law)
Jide Nzelibe (Northwestern University)



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