International Organization

Research Article

Credible Commitments and the International Criminal Court

Beth A. Simmonsa1 and Allison Dannera2

a1 Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. E-mail

a2 United States Attorney, Northern District of California. E-mail:


The creation of an International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute war crimes poses a real puzzle. Why was it created, and more importantly, why do states agree to join this institution? The ICC represents a serious intrusion into a traditional arena of state sovereignty: the right to administer justice to one's one nationals. Yet more than one hundred states have joined. Social scientists are hardly of one mind about this institution, arguing that it is (alternately) dangerous or irrelevant to achieving its main purposes: justice, peace, and stability. By contrast, we theorize that the ICC is a mechanism to assist states in self-binding, and draw on credible commitments theory to understand who commits to the ICC, and the early consequences of such commitments. This approach explains a counterintuitive finding: the states that are both the least and the most vulnerable to the possibility of an ICC case affecting their citizens have committed most readily to the ICC, while potentially vulnerable states with credible alternative means to hold leaders accountable do not. Similarly, ratification of the ICC is associated with tentative steps toward violence reduction and peace in those countries precisely least likely to be able to commit credibly to foreswear atrocities. These findings support the potential usefulness of the ICC as a mechanism for some governments to commit to ratchet down violence and get on the road to peaceful negotiations.

Beth A. Simmons is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached

Allison M. Danner is Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District of California. She can be reached at


We appreciate the comments we have received from Karen Alter, José Alvarez, David Carter, Jeff Checkel, Alex DeWaal, Jeffry Frieden, Hein Goemans, John Goldberg, Jack Goldsmith, Ryan Goodman, Andrew Guzman, Oona Hathaway, Laurence Helfer, Leslie Johns, Judith Kelley, Robert Keohane, Ernst Martens, Lisa Martin, Richard Price, David Singer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Jack Snyder, Jessica Stanton, and Richard Steinberg. We also benefited from feedback from the International Law/International Relations Seminar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard; International Security Workshop, Harvard; Political Economy Workshop, Harvard; the Vanderbilt International Law Roundtable; the International Law Workshop at the University of California Berkeley Law School, Simon Fraser University, McGill University, Princeton University, and the Hauser seminar at New York University Law School. We appreciate the excellent research assistance of Nicholas Fram, Allison Gruenwald, Marina Ivanova, Trung Nguyen, Alexander Noonan, Phillip Riblett, Matthew Roller, and Koppel Verma. We are grateful to members of Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) who provided extensive data for this project. All errors of fact and judgment remain our own. Please note that the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice or the United States.