The ICC Investigation Is a Powerful Aesthetic Opportunity for the United Kingdom

14/05/2014 13:51 BST | Updated 13/07/2014 10:59 BST

"Court to probe UK Iraq abuse claims," trumpeted the BBC. "ICC to investigate claims that British troops carried out war crimes," the Guardian breathlessly intoned. The evidence under consideration has been described by the Independent as a "devastating dossier," which is a particularly evocative bit of alliteration. What's really going on?

In less hysterical terms, taken directly from the International Criminal Court's own press release, the Prosecutor of the ICC has announced that "she has decided to re-open the preliminary examination of the situation in Iraq, previously concluded in 2006, following submission of further information to the Office of the Prosecutor in January 2014 in accordance with article 15 of the Rome Statute." Decidedly unsexy, isn't it? Almost stupor-inducing. An accurate analysis of the situation undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between complete non-event and international witch hunt.

Angling for a hook to connect this "preliminary examination" with the upcoming European elections, the Guardian suggested that ICC's renewed interest in the UK's possible misdeeds during the Iraq war may lead to a bump in the polls for UKIP, because of "scepticism" about European institutions, "such as the Court." This would be disappointing if it were true--but thankfully, it is not. The ICC is not connected to Europe or European institutions in anyway, other than geographically (it is based--like many other international organizations--in the Hague). It is a permanent, independent, international court that was brought into being by a 1998 treaty called the Rome Statute. The Court only has jurisdiction over those countries which choose to become member States.

If UKIP is somehow able to spin the UK's voluntary membership of an important international institution into an example of EU overreach, then it deserves all the votes it can get--for its masterful ability to create PR nightmares out of thin air. However, it is actually mainstream British political parties who have the upper hand here, if they can tamp down any knee-jerk jingoistic reactions long enough to recognize the powerful aesthetic opportunity that has been handed to them on a silver platter.

While the old maxim "there's no such thing as bad publicity" rarely applies in the realm of foreign affairs, it is apt in the situation at hand. The ICC's investigation provides the British government with a relatively risk-free way regain some much needed street cred on the international stage--and in turn help burnish the image of the ICC at a particularly delicate time in the Court's existence. Best of all, it can do so at the expense of its on-again, off-again partner in the "Special Relationship," the United States, who was most recently seen flirting unbecomingly with France. There really is no downside.

The United Kingdom has long been a vocal supporter of the mandate of the ICC; this shouldn't change simply because it finds itself under scrutiny. And while the media has been gleefully pointing out the rogue's gallery the UK now finds itself keeping company with (among them, Afghanistan, Guinea and the benighted Central African Republic), this is a willfully oversimplified interpretation of exactly what a "preliminary examination" by the ICC signifies. There are many intermediate steps before a "preliminary examination" becomes a full-blown case, and many opportunities for the Court to decline further consideration of a particular situation--the most prominent being if the State in question is "genuinely" willing and able to carry out its own domestic prosecution of the issue. The ICC is likely to find that the United Kingdom falls into this category, as the Marine A case and the current uproar over possible RAF violations of the Geneva Conventions ably demonstrate.

By cooperating with the ICC--even on the remote possibility it will need to eventually mount a defense of its actions--the British government will exhibit leadership and support for the important concept of international criminal justice. More importantly, though, it will help to shore up the Court's own reputation, which can use all the help it can get right now.

One of the many criticisms of the ICC is that all the cases it has under consideration are from African countries, leading to not-wholly-unsubstantiated charges of post-colonial power games. The reasons why the Court's caseload is so continent-specific include both boring procedural explanations and more complicated geo-political machinations. In any event, they do not lend themselves to pithy Twitter-length summaries--meaning that misconceptions fester and proliferate. Regardless of the rationales, though, there is no question that the ICC is currently suffering an image problem, which was not helped by its recent capitulation to Kenya. Should Britain accommodate the ICC's "preliminary examination"--as it has said it will--it will be a useful step towards rehabilitating the Court's reputation for impartiality. And for those looking for less altruistic motivations, if the United Kingdom can demonstrate that it has faith in the ICC as an institution, it may be easier to sell recalcitrant partners on the Security Council on the need to refer Syria to the Court.

Noble motivations aside, the real reason Britain should take a non-combative approach to the ICC's investigation is because it gives them an excellent opportunity to get a leg up on the United States. For it is, in fact, the United States at who this investigation is really aimed. The United States--who is not a member State of the ICC, and therefore not easily subjected to its jurisdiction, despite the impassioned pleas of the global human rights community. The United States--who wields a veto on the Security Council, and would unquestionably use that veto to block its own referral to the Court, if civil society was somehow able to craft a complaint which fell within the parameters of ICC admissibility guidelines. The United States--who under the George W. Bush administration, famously "signed" and then "unsigned" the Rome Statute.

The United Kingdom should take the ICC's investigation in stride to show its younger, oversized, wayward little brother that there is nothing to be afraid of--and that global leadership in the 21st century demands constructive engagement, even with those institutions and organizations whose mandates you find disagreeable. This is a powerful aesthetic opportunity. The UK shouldn't waste it.