The United States, Syria, and the International Criminal Court: Implications of the Rome Statute's Aggression Amendment

Harvard International Law Journal Online, Volume 55, Pages 35-44, 2013

10 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2013 Last revised: 16 Feb 2014

See all articles by Zachary D. Kaufman

Zachary D. Kaufman

Boston University - School of Law; Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law; University of Houston Law Center; Stanford Law School; Yale University - Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: December 4, 2013


In August 2013, President Obama advocated military intervention by the United States in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama further announced that he would seek congressional authorization for the attack and that he was comfortable pursuing this course of action without United Nations Security Council approval. While subsequent diplomatic developments have rendered U.S. military action against Syria less likely, the crisis in Syria remains a powerful example of situations that raise difficult questions about efforts arising under international law to curb states’ use of force abroad. Such unilateral action may have fallen under the International Criminal Court’s (“ICC”) working definition of the crime of aggression. To date, the United States has declined to join the ICC. The main tension in international law I note in this essay concerns the ramifications of the U.S. government ratifying the Rome Statute of the ICC (“Rome Statute”), the court’s underlying treaty. If subjected to ICC jurisdiction, then American political and military leaders, including the President, could become vulnerable to indictment, prosecution, and punishment by the court for interventions such as the one President Obama proposed. If it were a party to the Rome Statute, the U.S. government would expose its political and military commanders to such prosecutions. Those who support the United States joining the ICC, many of whom also have supported U.S. intervention in Syria, must acknowledge and resolve that tension.

This essay, authored by Dr. Zachary D. Kaufman, is published in the online companion of the Harvard International Law Journal. The piece was recommended as "Worth Reading" in volume 8, issue 20 (Dec. 30, 2013) of War Crimes Prosecution Watch, which is co-published by the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG) and Case Western Reserve University School of Law's Frederick K. Cox International Law Center.

Keywords: International Law, International Criminal Law, Transitional Justice, Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy, United States, Syria, Uganda, International Criminal Court, ICC, Rome Statute, Use of Force, Aggression, Chemical Weapons, Military Intervention, Humanitarian Intervention, National Security

Suggested Citation

Kaufman, Zachary D., The United States, Syria, and the International Criminal Court: Implications of the Rome Statute's Aggression Amendment (December 4, 2013). Harvard International Law Journal Online, Volume 55, Pages 35-44, 2013, Available at SSRN:

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