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People like the International Criminal Court — as long as it targets other problems in other countries
By Terrence Chapman and Stephen Chaudoin
The Washington Postt
In October, South Africa, Burundi and Gambia exited the ICC, raising new challenges for the relatively young war crimes court. A month later, Russia, which had signed — but not ratified — the initial 1998 Rome Statute that established the ICC, also withdrew, after the ICC issued a report labeling Russia’s actions in Crimea an “occupation.”
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Our previous research on global membership patterns suggests that the ICC has been successful in getting countries that already respect human rights to join. The ICC currently has 124 members. But nondemocratic countries and countries with a history of civil violence have generally been reluctant to join.
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The ICC now has a PR problem
According to Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, a former U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, the ICC has “found itself on the wrong side of a PR and political campaign.” Political leaders may support the court but face obstacles when their citizens distrust the meddling of international courts spearheaded by Western powers. At the same time, leaders themselves might stoke public opposition to the court to serve their own goals.
Kenyan candidate Uhuru Kenyatta adopted this strategy, campaigning on an anti-ICC platform in his successful bid for the presidency in 2013. The court had indicted Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, for their alleged roles in violence following the 2007-2008 Kenyan elections. As candidates, they stoked opposition to the court by casting it as a tool of Western imperialism.
The tide of public opinion sometimes emerges bottom up, as a grass-roots backlash against perceived Western imperialism. Or it can be an elite-led strategy, coming from leaders who originally thought they could manipulate the ICC to prosecute rebels and political opponents.
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Such findings are difficult to square with the court’s recent experiences. In Kenya, support for the court was high at the outset of the ICC’s investigation but decreased substantially as the court began to target popular politicians.
In the Philippines, where the ICC has warned that President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drug dealers could constitute a crime against humanity, his anti-drug campaign remains very popular.
We found that support for international law and the ICC doesn’t mean support for ICC investigations at home.
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Notably, the citizens most likely to benefit from transnational justice efforts — ethnic Uzbeks living close to where the violence occurred — were among the least likely to support investigations, possibly for fear of upsetting a peaceful status quo or being targeted in reprisals. Even citizens who indicated that they were familiar the ICC had these negative reactions.
This phenomenon is also not simply a reaction of countries with less developed democratic institutions. We conducted the same type of survey in the United States and found similar patterns. Americans claim to support international law, but their support drops significantly when they are told that the law might target the United States.
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This tells us that populations often express support for international institutions like the ICC in the abstract but object to its application to their own countries and leaders. This appears to be the same dynamic we see unfolding in Africa.
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Although this analysis may not paint the most optimistic picture of the ICC’s future, it does point to a need to better understand the dynamics of the Court’s popular legitimacy in countries that might be most affected. As with courts in many other settings, the ICC’s ability to deter war crimes and prosecute those who have committed atrocities rests on perceptions of its legitimacy, as this shapes the willingness of political actors to cooperate with and enforce its decisions.
Our research suggests potential investigations often cause concern and trepidation among local populations (a finding echoed in Burundi — one of the countries withdrawing from the ICC). A better understanding of the conditions under which international legal interventions prompt a backlash vs. acceptance would do much to improve the court’s ability to survive the current crisis and have a successful future. This understanding would help orient the court and its advocates toward persuading publics of its many virtues.
Terrence Chapman is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas in Austin.
Stephen Chaudoin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
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