The ICC is the successor to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, when the post-war international order sought an ideal of global justice.
The tribunals for the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the 1994 Rwandan genocide also laid the foundation for a permanent court.
The Rome Statute was signed in 1998 and entered into force four years later, allowing the court to finally open its doors.
But since then it hasn’t trapped any senior government leaders, and its five convictions to date have all been African rebels, including a former child soldier.
“When we look at the legacy of the ICC in light of its lofty goals, the results are negligible,” Thijs Bouwknegt of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies told AFP.
It had high-profile failures: former Côte d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted, former DR Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal and charges against Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped.
Just as damaging is the absence of protagonists.
The United States, which signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but never ratified it, has been actively hostile at times and has at one point sanctioned the court over the Afghan investigation.
China, Israel, Myanmar and Syria have also clearly steered, along with Russia — which allegedly even sent a spy posing as an intern to target the ICC investigation into Ukraine.
But although the ICC was “justified” criticism, the court had made a “significant contribution”, says Victoria Kerr of the Asser Institute for International and European Law in The Hague.
“The ICC is not a panacea, nor should its effectiveness be measured by its beliefs alone,” Kerr told AFP.
“RECIPE FOR ARMAGEDDON”
The court has tried to improve the situation in recent years.
New investigations into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines have brought the ICC into some of the world’s most contentious conflicts.
Khan said when he took office last year that he wanted to “fix” the ICC record.
However, Bouwknegt said Khan’s decision to “deprioritize” alleged US crimes in Afghanistan and focus on the Taliban and Islamic State “exposed that the court is still bowing to the most powerful”.
Ukraine is now where the court has a chance to prove its credentials.
Khan said 43 states’ recent support for the ICC’s investigation into Ukraine “isn’t just because of what’s happening in Ukraine.”
“It’s a realization that when we see international law as an a la carte menu for states to choose from… that’s a recipe for Armageddon,” he told AFP.
Long underfunded and understaffed, the ICC has seen a surge in Western support since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the help of dozens of foreign researchers.
But Ukraine also raises the same major problem that the ICC has faced over the past two decades.
“The main challenge will be to bring high-ranking perpetrators to justice,” Kerr said.