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The world’s five most populous countries—accounting for nearly half the world’s population—don’t formally recognize the International Criminal Court. 

In news coverage of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) indictments against both the leaders of Hamas and Israel, many reports have noted that neither Israel nor the United States recognizes the jurisdiction of the ICC. But they’re hardly alone.  

Russia isn’t a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC. Neither are China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In fact, none of the world’s five most populous countries is a member state of the ICC and, overall, using data from the US Census Bureau’s world population clock, well over half of the world’s population lives in countries that don’t formally support the ICC’s reach and jurisdiction.  

In the Middle East, while Jordan is an ICC signatory, Israel is not. Neither are Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Turkey isn’t a member state either. The ICC began to consider the Palestinian Authority a member—even though Palestinians never actually ratified the Rome Statute—after the UN General Assembly voted to change its status from non-member observer “entity” to non-member observer “state.”   

How did the ICC come about? It was authorized by the United Nations at a session held in Rome in 1998 (thus the Rome Statute) and formally established in 2002. Since then, 31 cases have been tried before the court, leading to 10 convictions and 4 acquittals. Of the 46 individuals for whom ICC judges have issued arrest warrants, less than half were successfully detained and brought before the court. Seventeen of those covered by the ICC-issued warrants remain at large. 

In 2023, in the face of clear evidence of atrocities and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine by Russian forces, the ICC issued arrest warrants for both Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for human rights. In theory, the warrants mean that ICC members are supposed to detain these individuals if they enter any member’s jurisdiction. While Ukraine is undoubtedly supportive of any effort to hold Putin and others accountable for Russia’s numerous human rights violations, few observers see any realistic chance that the ICC will actually have an opportunity to put Putin on trial.  

Instead, Ukrainian officials are using their domestic justice and court system to try to hold Russian perpetrators accountable for their atrocities and human rights violations. Ambassador Clint Williamson, who serves as lead coordinator of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine, a joint initiative of the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom, noted in the latest addition of the Wilson Quarterly that with more than 125,000 Russian war crimes reported, the caseload for Ukrainian prosecutors will be daunting. Even if the ICC were able to take up these cases, Williamson acknowledged that an international court would likely “only deal with dozens of perpetrators” due to its limited reach—leaving “99% of the cases” for the Ukrainian justice system. He also pointed out that the ICC doesn’t recognize one of the most obvious crimes that Vladimir Putin and other officials have committed: the crime of aggression, of manufacturing a conflict with no pretense.  

In short, human rights matter. Allegations of war crimes matter. The conduct of soldiers, and the reprehensible actions of terrorists, matter. The question that nations haven’t been able to answer is, who do they trust to pursue claims and carry out justice in an evenhanded way? 

Katherine Schauer contributed research and writing to this blog. 

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark A. Green

President & CEO, Wilson Center
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