Beefing up the ICC to take on war criminals

The Future of War Crimes Justice


Chris Stephen


£8.99, Melville House Publishing



This new book is one of a series of unrelated short publications, aimed at a general readership, offering ‘imaginative future visions’ (the publisher’s words) on topics as disparate as ‘Songwriting’ and ‘Wales’. It concerns the prosecution of war criminals – soldiers and their leaders who act without regard to the Geneva Conventions or other rules of war during times of conflict. It provides a concise modern history – and offers suggestions for reform. 

Future of War Crimes Justice

The author is not a lawyer, but rather a journalist who has been covering wars for over 30 years. He recounts how he received a blunt introduction in the early 1990s, when he questioned a Serbian commander about proposed actions that would inevitably lead to the death of civilians. That was the point, replied the slightly puzzled would-be murderer.

The book has a quasi-prologue concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From an early stage, independent observers compiled evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces and, in 2023, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) brought formal charges against Vladmir Putin, based on his responsibility as Russia’s leader. Yet the case was and remains doomed, because Russia does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction and Putin is not likely to travel anywhere that does (or that would act against him anyway, given Russia’s inevitable response).

Even where potential defendants have not headed a nuclear-armed state, however, prosecutions have still been thin on the ground. In the first 20 years since its creation in 2002, the ICC managed just five successful prosecutions. That is partly due to many states aside from Russia also choosing not to recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction, but it is also arises from a lack of both resources and political will.

The author’s proposed solutions include a) more resources for the ICC, b) more states adopting ‘universal jurisdiction’ – allowing them to prosecute extraterritorial crimes in their domestic courts – and c) for corporations and executives thereof who knowingly provide war criminals with financial services to be prosecuted as well.

Those ideas all have merit, though one should caution that they might not be cost-free: dubious states might bring unfounded prosecutions to inconvenience political opponents, or to extort money from blameless corporations. But the international order will always be imperfect, and too many crimes have gone unpunished under the present system.

The book constitutes a worthwhile introduction to the subject and should be commended accordingly.


James Wilson is an independent legal author. His most recent book is Lord Denning: Life, Law and Legacy