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A turning point in international law

Russia’s war against Ukraine highlights the importance of supranational law. Any such law has its limitations, however. 

Foreign Minister Baerbock in The Hague
Foreign Minister Baerbock in The Hague © picture alliance/dpa

“Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine is also a brutal attack on international law,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in The Hague in January, adding: “An epochal turning point means that we also need to find new responses in international law.” The minister is therefore advocating a special international tribunal to hold the Russian leadership accountable for the war of aggression. At the same time, she voiced support for a reform of international criminal law.

Jurisdiction and limitations of the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court began its work in 2002.
The International Criminal Court began its work in 2002. © picture alliance / ANP

In The Hague, the foreign minister visited the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Germany supports as the second-largest contributor. The ICC was established in 1998 by an international treaty called the Rome Statute. The court began its work in the summer of 2002, acting within clearly defined boundaries. Its jurisdiction encompasses only four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and, to a limited extent, the crime of aggression, i.e. a war of aggression. 

Prosecuting anyone for a war of aggression is difficult. “That is what makes it so disastrous that the limits of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression are now becoming visible,” Baerbock said during her speech at The Hague Academy of International Law.

Debate on special international tribunal for Russia’s war of aggression 

One thing being discussed in view of the limitations of international law is a special international tribunal. Germany’s foreign minister supports this proposal, though she admits that it would “not be an ideal solution”. However, she said that there was currently a gap in the law and what was needed was a “very clear message to the Russian leadership” and thus “to everyone else in the world that a war of aggression in this world will not go unpunished”.

Pursuing war crimes in Germany 

Theoretically, the German justice system can pursue war crimes on the basis of the so-called universal jurisdiction principle. This applies even if the perpetrators are not German and the crimes were committed abroad. German courts have already done pioneering work in this area: IS fighters have already been prosecuted for war crimes in several cases, for example. 


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