Unpacking the Nuances of Complementarity


July 17, 1998 changed the global landscape of accountability for the most egregious crimes. At that time 120 states ratified the Rome Statute, bringing the International Criminal Court (ICC) into being, a body designed to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It was a day in which nations around the globe took a stand against impunity, which we celebrate annually on International Justice Day.

The Rome Statute linked the newly created ICC to the national courts of its member states, establishing it as a court of last resort. National courts have primary jurisdiction over crimes, with the ICC serving as a failsafe of sorts to ensure that perpetrators are held to account. This relationship between national courts and the ICC is known as complementarity, a concept critical to understanding the role that the ICC plays in criminal prosecutions and indeed why we celebrate International Justice Day.

Complementarity affects many people beyond The Hague, in the signatory countries where these horrendous crimes have been committed –victims of human rights abuses, activists, lawyers and judicial officials, even journalists and civil society at large.

Because of the central role complementarity plays in the global fight against impunity, this year ICTJ is celebrating International Justice Day with the release of The Handbook on Complementarity: An Introduction to the Role of National Courts and the ICC in Prosecuting International Crimes. Avoiding technicalities, this handbook unpacks the relationship between national courts and the ICC in a straightforward manner for people who are fierce defendants of justice in their own countries, but not necessarily lawyers or specialists. Download the full version for free and explore our multimedia presentation.

Experience shows that without the significant help of civil society organizations working in the country where the crimes are committed (and the pressure they can put on governments) the chances of seeing justice tend to be low. We hope that this handbook will be a useful tool in their tireless fight for accountability.

The struggle against impunity remains as important –and precarious –as ever. In recent years, the ICC has come under attack. States that signed the Rome Statute have ignored arrest warrants from the Court, allowing alleged perpetrators to flout the law. Several national efforts to prosecute perpetrators of atrocities have failed. International cases have crumbled. In short: there is serious concern that perpetrators of atrocity may evade justice, and the lives and well-being of millions of people across the planet hang in the balance.

Given these stakes, complementarity is of utmost importance – to understand it is to understand one of the key tools in this fight. The drafters of the Rome Statute had it right by placing the onus on state parties to investigate and prosecute Rome Statute crimes, as the ICC can realistically only play the role of a court of last resort. That does, however, leave many hard questions - and much work - for the rest of us who work to strengthen national judiciaries. Join us as we explore these questions this International Justice Day.

Go to Multimedia Presentation

PHOTO: The ICC premises in The Hague. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)