The fight over aggression

In less than a week, hundreds of diplomats and activists will gather in Kampala, Uganda to review the first decade of the International Criminal Court‘s existence. There are a few amendments to the Rome Statute on the table, but by far the biggest issue will be the definition of aggression, which is listed as one of the crimes the court can prosecute but which has never been defined. It’s a hot-button issue because aggression goes to the issue of why states fight, rather than how they fight. Fundamentally, aggression is about whether a country has a just cause to use force, and that is always a deeply contentious issue.

The issue generates some interesting fault lines. The United States and several other major powers would rather the ICC stay away from the issue altogether or, at the very least, take its lead from the UN Security Council. This is not surprising. Countries in the habit of using military force do not want an independent international prosecutor sniffing around their reasons for doing so. The conflicts in Kosovo and Iraq, for example, were launched without Security Council approval–does that make them aggression? Under some definitions, the answer would be yes. 

Other divides on the issue are more unexpected. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch, a major supporter of the court, is not keen on defining aggression, which it fears will distract attention from the core issue of how combatants behave during conflicts. This puts HRW at odds with many in the advocacy community, who are pushing for a broad definition and who see tackling aggression as a key component of the Nuremberg legacy. Expect all these views to get a full airing in the next couple of weeks.

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About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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