A meager record of five convictions and accusations that it focused only on Africa have tarnished the image of the ICC, whose founding treaty — the Rome Statute — entered into force on July 1 2002.
The refusal of major world powers such as the United States, Russia and China to join this body has also hampered the reach of the court, which sits in The Hague, Netherlands.
But the only permanent jurisdiction in the world dedicated to the fight against impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression remains the jurisdiction of last resort for many countries.
It is a “pillar of the international legal system”, greeted the presiding judge Piotr Hofma?ski by opening a conference organized for the 20th anniversary of the court.
The court’s anniversary is “a tremendous achievement,” prosecutor Karim Khan said at the conference. But, surrounded by some of the “architects” of founding status, Mr Khan compared the ICC to a building “under pressure”.
“You have to renovate, you have to become stronger and more efficient,” he added.
The investigation in Ukraine, opened following the Russian invasion with the imminent support of 43 states, gives the ICC a chance to prove its powers.
The investigation has already won the court renewed Western support, notably with the help of dozens of foreign investigators.
The ICC is the successor to the Nuremberg tribunal which tried Nazi crimes after World War II, when the new international order was in search of an ideal of global justice.
Tribunals on the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the conflict in Sierra Leone also laid the groundwork for a permanent court in The Hague.
The Rome Statute was signed in 1998, with entry into force four years later.
But the ICC has since obtained only five convictions, all of African rebels, and no heads of government.
“When considering 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.
Former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has been cleared, former Democratic Republic of Congo Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba acquitted on appeal and charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have been dropped.
Equally detrimental is the absence of certain major powers. The United States, which signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but never ratified it, has at times been actively hostile, even sanctioning the court for its investigation into Afghanistan.
China, Israel, Burma and Syria also stayed away, as did Russia, which reportedly even sent a spy posing as a trainee to influence the ICC’s Ukraine investigation.
However, new investigations have been opened in recent years into some of the world’s most contested conflicts, including Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Burma and the Philippines.
Conflicts are documented today in fundamentally different ways than when the court was born 20 years ago, thanks in particular to smartphones, Karim Khan pointed out.
Technology is “key to telling the difference between the wheat and the chaff” in gathering evidence, he said.
“I am convinced that international justice can accelerate and progress and have the required impact,” said Mr. Khan, provided we work “collectively” to be more effective.