Skip to main content

International Criminal Law: An Ideology Critique


The article engages in an ideology critique of international criminal-law texts and discourse, drawing on a theoretical framework developed by critical legal studies scholars in order to interrogate, in a different jurisprudential context, the assumptions undergirding contemporary international criminal-law (ICL) scholarship. It argues that the triumphalism surrounding ICL and its adequacy to deal with conflict and violence ignores the factors and forces – including specific international legal interventions in countries’ political economies – that shape or even help establish the environment from which such conflict and violence emanate. In uncritically celebrating ICL and equating it with a pacific international rule of law, ICL scholarship risks shaping passive acquiescence in the status quo and discouraging more throughgoing efforts to address the systemic forces underlying instances of violence, including political–economic forces shaped by international legal institutions.

Hide All

1 Satz D., ‘Equality of What among Whom? Thoughts on Cosmopolitanism, Statism, and Nationalism’, in Shapiro I. and Brilmayer L. (eds.), Global Justice (1999), 67.

2 Notable exceptions, albeit not focused on the ICL field, include S. Marks, The Riddle of All Constitutions: International Law, Democracy and the Critique of Ideology (2000); Marks S., ‘Big Brother Is Bleeping Us – With the Message that Ideology Doesn't Matter’, (1999) 12 EJIL 109; Orford A., ‘Muscular Humanitarianism: Reading the Narratives of the New Interventionism’, (1999) 10 EJIL 679.

3 Tallgren I., ‘The Sensibility and Sense of International Criminal Law’, (2002) 13 EJIL 561.

4 Ibid., at 564 and 590.

5 Ibid., at 594.

6 See, e.g., Mutua M., ‘Never Again: Questioning the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals’, (1997) 11 Temp Intl and Comp LJ 167.

7 Tallgren, supra note 3, at 594–5.

8 Ibid., at 595.

9 Roth B., ‘Retrieving Marx for the Human Rights Project’, (2004) 17 LJIL 31, at 66.

10 Teitel R., ‘Humanity's Law: Rule of Law for the New Global Politics’, (2002) 35 Cornell Intl LJ 355, at 368.

11 For classic defences of the rule of law see J. Raz, The Authority of Law: Essays on Law and Morality (1979), 212–19; Fallon R. H., ‘“The Rule of Law” as a Concept in Constitutional Discourse’, (1997) 97 Colum L Rev 1. For discussions of the rule of law in Western legal thought, see Krever T., ‘The Legal Turn in Late Development Theory: The Rule of Law and the World Bank's Development Model’, (2011) 52 Harv Intl LJ 287, at 307–8; B. Z. Tamanaha, On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory (2004); Costa P. and Zolo D. (eds.), The Rule of Law: History, Theory and Criticism (2007).

12 Polon D., ‘Toward a Theory of Law and Patriarchy’, in Kairys D. (ed.), The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique (1982), 294. See also Krever T., ‘Calling Power to Reason?’, (2010) 65 New Left Rev 141.

13 See Mégret F., ‘Three Dangers for the International Criminal Court: A Critical Look at a Consensual Project’, (2001) 12 FYBIL 193.

14 Marks S., ‘International Judicial Activism and the Commodity-Form Theory of International Law’, (2007) 18 EJIL 199, at 208. See also the discussion of ideology critique in Marks, Riddle of All Constitutions, supra note 2.

15 Thompson J., Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication (1990), 72–3.

16 See K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (1977), 272 and 280.

17 Reiman J., ‘The Marxian Critique of Criminal Justice’, (1987) 6 Crim Justice Ethics 30, at 38.

18 Kirchheimer O., Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends (1961), 48.

19 Nunn K. B., ‘The Trial as Text: Allegory, Myth and Symbol in the Adversarial Criminal Process – A Critique of the Role of the Public Defender and a Proposal for Reform’, (1995) 32 Am Crim L Rev 743, at 798.

20 Ibid., at 746.

22 See Kelman M., ‘The Origins of Crime and Criminal Violence’, in Kairys D. (ed.), The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique (1982), 215.

23 Gabel P. and Harris P., ‘Building Power and Breaking Images: Critical Legal Theory and the Practice of Law’, (1982) 11 NYU Rev L & Soc Change 369, at 369–70.

25 Ibid., at 369–70.

26 Hall S., ‘The Rediscovery of “Ideology”: The Return of the Repressed in Media Studies’, in Gurevitch al. (eds.), Culture, Society and the Media (1982), 63.

27 Robinson W. I., Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (1996), 43–4.

28 A. Supiot, Homo Juridicus: On the Anthropological Function of the Law (2007), xviii. This view, of course, has little in common with Marx's own writings on law, nor with those of the Bolshevik jurist Pashukanis. The latter neither reduced law to force nor viewed ideology as law's primary function, but rather grounded the dominant role assumed by law in modern capitalist society in concrete material relations.

29 Cain M., ‘Gramsci, and the State and the Place of Law’, in Sugarman D. (ed.), Legality, Ideology and the State (1983).

30 Lauterpacht H., ‘The Grotian Tradition in International Law’, in Falk al. (eds.), International Law: A Contemporary Perspective (1985), 30.

31 Berman N., ‘Legitimacy through Defiance: From Goa to Iraq’, (2005) 23 Wisconsin Intl LJ 93. Critically minded scholars have questioned the implicit opposition of international law to politics. See, e.g., M. Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (2005); Marks S., ‘State-Centrism, International Law, and the Anxieties of Influence’, (2006) 19 LJIL 339.

32 This idea, of course, pre-dates Grotius; Rommen traces it at least to Suarez, who, in his conception of a jus gentium, ‘initiated the progressive juridical taming of the power-struggle between states’. Rommen H., ‘Francis Suarez’, (1948) 10 Rev Politics 437.

33 Buchanan A., ‘The Legitimacy of International Law’, in Besson S. and Tasioulas J. (eds.), The Philosophy of International Law (2010), 89.

34 Teitel, supra note 10, at 371.

35 See Kopelman E. S., ‘Ideology and International Law: The Dissent of the Indian Justice at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial’, (1991) 23 NYU J Intl L & Pol 373, at 404.

36 Teitel, supra note 10, at 368.

37 Ibid. See also Teitel R., ‘The Universal and the Particular in International Criminal Justice’, (1999) 30 Colum Hum Rts L Rev 285, at 285.

38 Bassiouni M. C., The Legislative History of the International Criminal Court (2005), 121. See also Bassiouni M. C., ‘From Versailles to Rwanda: The Need to Establish a Permanent International Criminal Court’, (1996) 10 Harv Hum Rts J 1.

39 Cassese A., ‘On the Current Trend towards Criminal Prosecution and Punishment of Breaches of International Humanitarian Law’, (1998) 9 EJIL 2, at 8.

40 Bass G., Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (2000), 36.

41 Drumbl M. A., Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law (2007), 5.

42 Mullins C. W. and Rothe D. L., ‘The Ability of the International Criminal Court to Deter Violations of International Criminal Law: A Theoretical Assessment’, (2010) 10 Intl Crim L Rev 771, at 771–2.

43 Bassiouni M. C., ‘Justice and Peace: The Importance of Choosing Accountability over Realpolitik’, (2003) 35 Case W Res J Intl L 191, at 192. See also M. C. Bassiouni, Introduction to International Criminal Law (2003), 680–2 and 737.

44 Bassiouni M. C., ‘The Need for International Accountability’, in Bassiouni M. C. (ed.), International Criminal Law, Vol. 3 (2008), 20.

45 Moreno-Ocampo L., ‘The International Criminal Court: Some Reflections’, (2009) 12 Ybk Intl Hum L 3, at 5.

46 Cassese A., ‘Reflections on International Criminal Justice’, (1998) 61 MLR 1, at 2.

47 Crane D. M., ‘The Bright Red Thread: The Politics of International Criminal Law – Do We Want Peace or Justice? The West African Experience’, in Sadat L. N. (ed.), Forging a Convention for Crimes against Humanity (2011), 59.

48 Bellelli R., ‘The Establishment of the System of International Criminal Justice’, in Bellelli R. (ed.), International Criminal Justice: Law and Practice from the Rome Statute to Its Review (2010), 62.

49 See, e.g., Drumbl M., ‘Collective Violence and Individual Punishment: The Criminality of Mass Atrocity’, (2005) 99 Northwest UL Rev 539, at 548; Zolo D., ‘Peace through Criminal Law?’, (2004) 2 JICJ 711; Tallgren, supra note 3.

50 See, e.g., Grayling A. C., Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West (2007), 252.

51 Robertson G., Crimes against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (1999), 374.

52 Simpson G., Law, War and Crime: War Crimes Trials and the Reinvention of International Law (2007), 57.

53 The International Law Commission has grappled with the question whether states can face penal responsibility for violations of international law but its articles on state responsibility exclude language on so-called ‘state crimes’. See Crawford J. (ed.), The International Law Commission's Articles on State Responsibility: Introduction, Text and Commentaries (2002); ‘Symposium: The ILC's State Responsibility Articles’, (2002) 96 AJIL 773.

54 Danner A. M. and Matinez J. S., ‘Guilty Associations: Joint Criminal Enterprise, Command Responsibility and the Development of International Criminal Law’, (2005) 93 Cal L Rev 75.

55 Norrie A., Crime, Reason and History: A Critical Introduction to Criminal Law (2001), 24.

56 Judgment of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal 1946, (1947) 41 AJIL 172.

57 Prosecutor v. Tadic, Judgement, Case No. IT-94-1-A, A.Ch., 15 July 1999, para. 186. See also Damaska M., ‘The Shadow Side of Command Responsibility’, (2001) 49 Am J Comp L 455, at 470.

58 Militello V., ‘The Personal Nature of Individual Criminal Responsibility and the ICC Statute’, (2007) 5 J Intl Crim Jus 941, at 944.

59 Werle G., ‘Individual Criminal Responsibility in Article 25 ICC Statute’, (2007) 5 J Intl Crim Jus 953, at 953.

60 Mégret, supra note 13, at 204.

61 Koskenniemi M., ‘Between Impunity and Show Trials’, (2002) 6 Max Planck Ybk UN L 1, at 2.

62 Peschke K., ‘The ICC Investigation into the Conflict in Northern Uganda: Beyond the Dichotomy of Peace versus Justice’, in Brown B. S. (ed.), Research Handbook on International Criminal Law (2011), 178.

63 Baroni F., ‘The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Its Mission to Restore Peace’, (2000) 12 Pace Intl L Rev 233, at 242.

64 Prosecutor v. Milošević, Transcript, Case No. IT-02-54-T, 12 February 2002.

65 Zolo, supra note 49, at 727.

66 Akhavan P., ‘Beyond Impunity: Can International Criminal Justice Prevent Future Atrocities?’, (2001) 95 AJIL 7, at 27.

67 Akhavan P., ‘Justice in The Hague, Peace in the Former Yugoslavia? A Commentary on the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal’, (1998) 20 Hum Rts Q 739, at 815.

68 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 2187 UNTS 90, preamble.

69 J. Habermas, The Divided West (2006), 134.

70 Prosecutor v. Erdemović, Sentencing Judgement, Case No. IT-96-22-T, T.Ch., 29 November 1996, para. 58.

71 Meron T., ‘War Crimes Law Comes of Age’, (1998) 92 AJIL 462, at 464; Tallgren, supra note 3, at 563.

72 UNSC Res 808, (1993) UN Doc. S/RES/827.

73 Baroni, supra note 63, at 234.

74 ICTY, ‘Achievements’,

75 Akhavan, supra note 67, at 743–51; T. Meron, ‘Answering for War Crimes: Lessons from the Balkans’, (1997) 76 Foreign Affairs 2, at 6–8; Bassiouni M. C., ‘Searching for Peace and Achieving Justice’, (1996) 50 LCP 9, at 18–19.

76 Weschler L., ‘International Humanitarian Law: An Overview’, in Gutman R. and Rieff D. (eds.), Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know (1999), 19.

77 F. Pocar, ‘The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia’, in Bellelli, supra note 48, 69.

78 Scharf M. P., ‘The Legacy of the Milosevic Trial’, (2003) 37 New Eng L Rev 915, at 916.

79 Koskenniemi, supra note 61, at 2; M. Mandel, How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes against Humanity (2004), 150; Akhavan P., ‘Justice, Power, and the Realities of Interdependence: Lessons from the Milosevic and Hussein Trials’, (2005) 38 Cornell Intl LJ 973, at 982.

80 Scharf, supra note 78, at 916.

81 Rieff D., ‘A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?’, (1999) 16 (2)World Pol J 1.

82 R. J. Smith, ‘Serb Leaders Hand over Milosevic for Trial by War Crimes Tribunal’, Washington Post, 29 June 2001.

83 ‘Bagging the Butcher’, Time, 9 April 2001.

84 Prosecutor v. Milošević, Transcript, Case No. IT-02-54-T, 12 February 2002; C. Del Ponte, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity's Worst Criminals & the Culture of Impunity (2009), 37.

85 See, e.g., P. Gowan, ‘The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy’, (1999) I/234 New Left Rev 83, at 85; Chossudovsky M., ‘Dismantling Former Yugoslavia, Recolonising Bosnia’, (1997) 7 Development in Practice 375; S. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (1995); Phillips P., ‘Why Were We Bombing Yugoslavia?’, (1999) 60 Studies in Political Economy 85; Petras J. and Vieux S., ‘Bosnia and the Revival of US Hegemony’, (1996) I/218 New Left Rev 3; L. J. Cohen, Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia's Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition (1995). A useful synthesis of historical, political-economic, and legal work on the former Yugoslavia and its wars can be found in Orford A., ‘Locating the International: Military and Monetary Interventions after the Cold War’, (1997) 38 Harv Intl LJ 443, at 451–9. This section draws heavily on this latter article in particular.

86 Phillips, supra note 85, at 89.

87 Woodward, supra note 85, at 51.

88 Orford, supra note 85, at 453. Milošević himself, it is worth noting, was an enthusiastic supporter of neo-liberal reform, urging Yugoslavs to ‘overcome their “unfounded, irrational, and . . . primitive fear of exploitation” by foreign capital’. Cohen, supra note 85, at 56.

89 Chossudovsky, supra note 85, at 376.

90 Woodward, supra note 85, at 52.

91 Petras and Vieux, supra note 85, at 10.

92 Cramer C. and Weeks J., ‘Macroeconomic Stabilization and Structural Adjustment’, in Nafziger E. W. and Väyrynen R. (eds.), The Prevention of Humanitarian Emergencies (2002), 52. See also Schierup C.-U., ‘Quasi-Proletarians and a Patriarchal Bureaucracy: Aspects of Yugoslavia's Re-Peripheralization’, (1992) 44 Soviet Studies 79; Blackburn R., ‘The Break-Up of Yugoslavia and the Fate of Bosnia’, (1993) I/199 New Left Rev 100.

93 Orford, supra note 85, at 455.

94 Woodward, supra note 85, at 15. A similar point is made in Gowan P., The Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian Bid for World Dominance (1999), 230.

95 Woodward, ibid., at 58.

96 Ibid., at 39–40 and 69–70.

97 Orford, supra note 85, at 455.

99 Chandler D., Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton (2000), 30.

100 Ibid.

101 Orford, supra note 85, at 456.

102 Ibid., at 456–7.

103 Ibid., at 457.

104 Woodward, supra note 85, at 17.

105 Orford, supra note 85, at 458.

106 Ibid., at 459.

107 Miall al., Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management, and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts (1999), 109.

108 See Storey A., ‘Economics and Ethnic Conflict: Structural Adjustment in Rwanda’, (1999) 17 Dev Pol Rev 43; Darrow M., Between Light and Shadow: The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and International Human Rights Law (2003); Cramer and Weeks, supra note 92, at 50; J. Weeks, Development Strategy and the Economy of Sierra Leone (1992).

109 Cramer C., Violence in Developing Countries: War, Memory, Progress (2007), 198.

110 See Paris R., At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (2004), 124.

111 Krever, supra note 11, at 297.

112 Robinson, supra note 27, at 339; Milanovic B., ‘The Two Faces of Globalization: Against Globalization as We Know It’, (2003) 31 World Dev 667, at 679.

113 Marks S., ‘Human Rights and Root Causes’, (2011) 74 MLR 57.

114 Cramer and Weeks, supra note 92, at 44–5.

115 Žižek S., ‘Against the Double Blackmail’, (1999) I/234 New Left Rev 76.

116 Marks S., ‘Apologising for Torture’, (2004) 73 Nord. J Intl L 365, at 368.

117 Ibid., at 377.

118 Ibid., at 378.

119 Akhavan, supra note 66, at 10.

120 Drumbl, supra note 41.

121 M. Osiel, Making Sense of Mass Atrocity (2009) xi, 241, 243.

122 Fletcher L. E. and Weinstein H. M., ‘Violence and Social Repair: Rethinking the Contribution of Justice to Reconciliation’ (2002) 24 Hum Rts Q 573, 618; Drumbl, supra note 41, at 25; Cohen David, ‘Beyond Nuremberg: Individual Responsibility for War Crimes’, in Hesse C. and Post R. (eds.), Human Rights in Political Transitions: Gettysburg to Bosnia (1999).

123 Drumbl, ibid., at 201.

124 Waters T. W., ‘Killing Globally, Punishing Locally? The Still-Unmapped Ecology of Atrocity’, (2008) 55 Buff L Rev 1331, at 1334.

125 Drumbl, supra note 49, at 1309.

126 Charlesworth H., ‘International Law: A Discipline of Crisis’, (2002) 65 MLR 377, at 386.

127 For a recent discussion of the relationship between ICL and international human rights law see Schwöbel C., ‘The Comfort of International Criminal Law’ (2013) 24 Law and Critique.

128 For a discussion of the limits of the international legal form more generally, see Knox R., ‘Marxism, International Law, and Political Strategy’, (2009) 22 LJIL 413.

129 Koskenniemi, supra note 61, at 26.

130 See Knox R., ‘Strategy and Tactics’, (2010) 21 FYBIL 193.

131 For a discussion of the changing contours of neo-liberal policy in the World Bank, see Krever, supra note 11.

* PhD Candidate in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science []. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Institute for Global Law and Policy, Harvard Law School, and the Historical Materialism Conference, SOAS, London. I am grateful to Teresa Almeida Cravo, Rob Knox, Sarah Nouwen, Christine Schwöbel, Alex Anievas, Ben Winks, Rick Krever, Hani Sayed, Riaz Tayob, Reecia Orzeck, John Reynolds, conference participants, and two anonymous reviewers, all of whom provided insightful comments and criticisms, not all of which I have been able to incorporate. Any errors, as the usual caveat has it, remain my own.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Leiden Journal of International Law
  • ISSN: 0922-1565
  • EISSN: 1478-9698
  • URL: /core/journals/leiden-journal-of-international-law
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 24
Total number of PDF views: 202 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1145 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.