In general, law is a system used by national entities (I'll go with that term in place of a more loaded one like "countries" or "states") to keep their people in check and maintain prosperity for the many in terms of intra-entity interactions. More recently, treaties such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations function as a means of keeping order and prosperity in terms of inter-entity interactions.

When people or nations commit acts that harm the many, the appropriate body, whether the presiding national entity or the community of national entities, respectively, responds with punishment typically as deterrent to further such acts. And so the system more or less functions to keep everyone happy, except when it doesn't. Every now and then, some group or another commits genocide or eugenics or forces labor upon its citizens and inevitably, a number of people suffer, and the regime eventually ends.

Then there's the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Arguably one of the greatest achievements of inter-entity cooperation in history, functioning to try those who'd fall outside the scope of any one entity, or across the scopes of too many for any one to have presiding jurisdiction. Perfect for trying genocidal tyrants, mass murderers, or perhaps a few Nazis whose war crimes were committed seventy years ago. But what's the point?

Nearly every German, for instance, is raised with a very real understanding of the significance of their history, and the opinion that it was wrong. It seems a little vengeful to target 90-year-old Nazis for crimes they realize is wrong, or even for crimes they are proud of, and there doesn't seem to be much of a benefit with regards to preventing it from happening again?

It would seem to me that in many if not most cases, the International Criminal Court is a powerful tool for beating a dead horse, even if the historical significance behind it isn't.

Does the International Criminal Court at the Hague serve a quantifiable purpose beyond taking a last stab at punishing those long past their crimes?

  • 5
    The ICC is for trying defendants under international law. If your questions is: why do we have, say, laws against war crimes, it's as a deterrent against war crimes. If they weren't ever prosecuted , they wouldn't be much of a deterrent. BTW the ICC hasn't targeted old Nazis. All recent prosecutions have been under German jurisdiction to my understanding.
    – Alex
    Nov 30, 2017 at 14:03
  • 1
    I know when there were accusations of misconduct of US forces in Iraq, there were questions of jurisdiction for military "contractors" (mercenaries?) used by the USA. They aren't military members, so were not subject to military justice. Domestic US law enforcement had no standing for stuff done in Iraq. There was no formal Iraqi legal system in place, I think, and certainly not one that could clearly claim jurisdiction over the contractors. I could see the ICC being useful, in a current timeframe, for especially egregious offenses with those kind of legal issues. Nov 30, 2017 at 15:25
  • @PoloHoleSet Its not as simple as that, I'm afraid. The US didn't ratify the Rome accord so they aren't a member of the ICC. As such, as I understand it, that would require Iraq to lodge a formal complaint. Seems unlikely, as Iraq hasn't lodged a complaint against the UK for the allegations that the ICC are investigating against the UK military in Iraq. The ICC's terms of reference are really, really, specific.
    – Alex
    Nov 30, 2017 at 18:12
  • A statute of limitations on genocide perhaps has less political appeal than you might think, and stabing nazi's more. Next time we need* it <superstitious gesture> it would be nice if it already existed to be clear that what is done is an attempt at justice rather than victors grinding the boot. *for whatever definition of need. But that isn't quantifiable. I'm a curious if you know of a school of thought where 'justice', 'vengeance', or 'normative behavior' are quantified.
    – user9389
    Nov 30, 2017 at 18:22
  • 1
    FYI, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Nazis. It only has jurisdiction over crimes committed since the Rome Statute was adopted.
    – cpast
    Nov 30, 2017 at 18:57

1 Answer 1


there doesn't seem to be much of a benefit with regards to preventing it from happening again?

How do you know?

Given that we haven't had a similar situation since then, there is no actual data on how people's behavior has changed. So we don't know if such prosecutions deter that kind of behavior. Even if we assume that it doesn't change the level of deterrence at all (and surety of getting caught is the area that studies show give more deterrence), there are other ways that it helps.

Say that you are Jewish and lived in a concentration camp. You become convinced that the rude German neighbor worked at a concentration camp. You go to the police and instead of starting a process that could end with him facing criminal charges (in a German court, not the International Criminal Court), they tell you it's too late. You tell your descendant about concentration camps.

One day the German's rudeness sets him off. He can't take it anymore. He stabs/shoots/whatever the German. The police come and arrest him. The evidence is clear. He goes to jail for decades. Meanwhile, it turns out that the rude German was just rude, not even German much less a concentration camp guard. Your descendant committed murder for nothing.

It may be purely vengeful, but offering that outlet helps prevent real tragedies. It leaves punishment to the government, which helps people move on with their lives. They can report potential criminals who can then be investigated. If the person follows up, the investigation can explain why they cleared the suspect.

There are four justifications for punishment: incapacitation; retribution; deterrence; rehabilitation. This is an example of retribution: society punishes the criminal so the victim does not have to do so. By doing so, we avoid cycles of personal retribution.

It is unlikely that a ninety year old former concentration camp guard is going to commit another crime. So incapacitation and rehabilitation are not really necessary. We don't know how this affects deterrence. It is certainly a cautionary tale. Not any individual conviction but the simple fact that there have been such convictions. Military schools and training facilities can share this example when talking about how to handle illegal orders. Even after a lifetime, it is still possible to get caught for obeying an illegal order. Better to not do something you know is wrong.

It is also possible that concentration camp guards, even at advanced age, may spread certain patterns of thought. Listeners may not recognize them initially. But when the former concentration camp guard is arrested, listeners can decide to discredit what they have heard from him. Again, it is difficult to measure this impact.

International Criminal Court

Of course, the previous discussion has little to do with the ICC directly, which doesn't prosecute Nazis. The ICC may sometimes face similar decisions. The ICC allows prosecutions of people who committed serious crimes in nations that are not going to prosecute them. Or where local prosecution is likely to lead to more violence. It allows international society to prosecute crimes against the Rome statute without putting the onus for prosecution on any one nation.

Without the ICC, crimes could only be prosecuted in individual countries. This can be difficult, as the people prosecuted in front of the ICC are often those who are or were part of the governments of their countries. The ICC both ensures that their supporters won't block justice and can help investigate where the defendant claims a purely political prosecution.

The ICC also has the effect of avoiding prosecutions in unrelated countries. For example, someone might find the laws of the United States favorable and start a prosecution there for crimes in an African country. With the ICC, the US court can refuse to take jurisdiction without worrying that the result would be that they are precluding justice. The ICC has natural jurisdiction of such crimes. So courts can defer to it where they might not be willing to defer to the local courts.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .