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March 1, 2023

Luis Moreno Ocampo on War and Justice in the Twenty-First Century

On March 1, the Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) and the Embassy of Argentina hosted a conversation with Luis Moreno Ocampo to discuss his recent book, War and Justice in the 21st Century: A Case Study on the International Criminal Court (2022), and his experiences as the founding chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Luis Moreno Ocampo speaks before students at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies.
Luis Moreno Ocampo speaks before students at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies.

The eruption of new armed conflicts through Ukraine, the Caucasus, Myanmar, and beyond has once again raised the need to reform, modernize, and empower the current international governance architecture to tackle the growing horrors of war and genocide. To reflect on his career and possible legal reform pathways to redesign existing systems, GAI hosted a discussion with Luis Moreno Ocampo, a visiting professor at Stanford University who served as ICC chief prosecutor from 2003 to 2012. Moreno Ocampo also served as one of the two lead prosecutors in Argentina’s 1985 trial charging the military junta that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983 with crimes against humanity. 

Prosecuting Global War Crimes 

“I had a very unique challenge when I first came into the ICC because this had never been done before, states delegating investigative power onto an international prosecutor to investigate war crimes. Never before could you intervene legally in countries like this.” -Luis Moreno Ocampo.

During his tenure as the first ICC prosecutor Moreno Ocampo was involved in diverse legal disputes, from the Balkans to Sudan and beyond. In this role, he developed and witnessed strategies with different degrees of effectiveness. Laying the groundwork for this new organization was no easy task, but from his formative time in Argentina, he understood that the ICC should be a last resort and that peace and reconciliation through justice should begin at the national level.

“Colombia is a great example of the influence of the ICC. That nation was able to carry out its own investigations without the need for ICC intervention, and in my conversations with the president I explained the importance of prosecuting the excesses of both the military and the armed groups.” -Luis Moreno Ocampo.

Luis Moreno Ocampo speaks at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies.
Luis Moreno Ocampo speaks at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies.

War and Justice in the 21st Century

Since the end of his term in 2013, Moreno Ocampo has focused on teaching and reflecting on his experiences. He spent a decade working on his latest book, War and Justice in the 21st Century, which builds on his experience to look at the future of law and conflict. In that context, he shared how some international relations experts still believe that power and national interests allow countries to expand their influence violently. 

The excesses committed by great powers in recent years prove the limitations of the existing legal order to resolve conflicts between states. His book details why the current system is ill-designed to rein in powerful invaders, pointing to the United States in Iraq and more recent Russian invasion of Ukraine as examples of the arbitrary use of force.

The ICC could play a role in restraining such excesses but is limited by its current architecture. For example, the ICC could play a “complementary role” by prosecuting Vladimir Putin, but the organization itself will not provide solutions. He argued that courts cannot predict the ultimate outcomes of their verdicts to determine the global order. They can, however, steward it by condemning unacceptable deeds.

In Moreno Ocampo’s opinion, the world needs imaginative new systems to solve these complex challenges. This could include, for example, the creation of a system of international courts to prosecute terrorism or organized transnational crime.

“We need new legal designs that are innovative and effective. This is a barely visible topic in the context of international relations and great power politics, but it is essential because it is a matter of life or death.” -Luis Moreno Ocampo.

The event was moderated by Julie O’Sullivan, the Agnes Williams Sesquicentennial Professor at Georgetown Law. Introductory remarks were provided by GAI Founding Director Alejandro Werner and by Argentina’s ambassador to the United States, Jorge Argüello. It was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Argentina. 

full recording of the event is available on the GAI YouTube channel.