Rick Bajornas

New Blood: Why India and Brazil Must Lead the Charge to Save the ICC

A few weeks ago, Russia withdrew its signature from the Rome statute and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Their move follows the withdrawal of Uganda, The Gambia and South Africa, and has been echoed by a threat from the Philippines to withdraw as well.

This exodus from the ICC is the latest manifestation of growing disillusionment of the international system the world over and is another troubling sign for the future of the international system at large. However, there exists an opportunity for emerging powers such as Brazil and India to not only save the international system but to reshape it in the process and augment their position in international affairs.

The ICC, which is made up of 124 countries, is based in The Hague and hears cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. South Africa initially expressed strong support for the ICC during its formation in 1998, even writing the court’s statue into its constitution. However, in withdrawing last month, said that its obligations “at times are incompatible” with the ICC’s requirements and expectations, a direct result of being pressured to arrest Omar al-Bashir during a visit last year.

Other African countries have expressed a belief that the court unfairly targets Africans. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the ICC “failed to meet the expectations to become a truly independent, authoritative international tribunal,” while Vladimir Putin called the court “ineffective.”

The exodus from the ICC is the latest troubling sign of the worldwide rise of populism and a distaste for the current international system. Many within South Africa cite its departure from the ICC as another example of President Jacob Zuma openly flouting existing law. Leaders of African countries who have left, including Uganda and The Gambia, are currently being investigated for human rights abuses and are using this global trend to their advantage. Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte have been criticized internationally for autocratic tendencies. In the face of populism, the international agendas of India and Brazil, and their status as large democracies, give them a strong position from which to shore up the ICC while shaking up the international order in their favor.

Brazil has criticized often and loudly the unequal power relations between emerged and emerging states in the international system. It has also advanced the notion of “responsibility while protecting,” (RWP), which is meant to place checks and balances on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. RWP’s main goal is to ensure responsible action, particularly in the use of military force for security and humanitarian causes. It is truly an emerging-power point of view, because it impedes powerful nations by using R2P as an excuse for any use of force. By proclaiming its support for and working with the ICC in a larger capacity, Brazil can take a concrete step to increase its influence on the world stage and balance out the international power structure, all while advancing RWP and democratic institutions—which may shore up the ICC itself.

India, like Brazil, is also a strong normative leader. It is the founder of the UN’s Non-Aligned Movement and a key member of the G-77, but has yet to crack into the great power “club,” which it has also criticized in the past for a lack of inclusion of less-powerful states. Not only is it a leader of non-aligned and Third World countries, it also has significant hard power thanks to its massive population, technologically advanced military and rapidly expanding economy. As a vocal opponent of the use of force and the world’s largest democracy, championing the ICC fits into its international goals, and its strong normative leadership may convince many other states, both powerful and small, to further support the court. At the very least, it could stop the bleeding.

The ICC withdrawals are the latest blows to an international system trying to withstand a growing populist movement, from Brexit to the American election of Donald Trump. People the world over are wary and distrustful of traditional leaders and mechanisms for international law, and some leaders are simply riding this wave to their advantage. If India and Brazil step into this breach, they will likely not only bring support from the emerging and Third World countries for the court, they will advance their own interests and gain power while protecting the international system—which is in the interest of already-powerful countries. If there is hope to save the international order, it is time for new leadership and some normative shifts. Given their priorities, Brazil and India are well-positioned to take up the mantle.