Adam Oler on “International Criminal Justice at a Crossroads: Where do we go from here?”

Today’s podcast is the latest installment of our series from our 28th Annual National Security Law Conference with a terrific presentation on international criminal justice by popular Lawfire® contributor and LENS conference favorite Adam Oler who gives us what can only be described as a tour-de-force.

Adam significantly expands upon his Lawfire® (post found here) to address the eminently timely topic, International Criminal Justice at a Crossroads: Where do we go from here?

Adam’s presentation is clearly intended to provoke serious–and realistic—thinking about international criminal justice. He introduces his ideas this way:

“And here’s my point, it’s dead. On life support. Well, almost dead. And we’re going to talk about a way that we can save it.”

“But in order to save it, I submit– and this is my thesis– we have to have a paradigm shift about the role of international criminal justice going forward. And that role, I hate to say it, is not in international courtrooms, it’s in a different arena entirely and we need to prepare for it.”

What is truly unique about his presentation is the masterful way he summarizes the history of international criminal justice in a little more than forty minutes and at the same time presents his thesis with astonishing clarity and energy.  I literally have never seen this done better. 

He begins with just war theory, moves to the Treaty of Westphalia, (explaining how “it sets up the international system that we have today”), Nuremberg, and the International Criminal Court (to include why it has not and, really, cannot work as originally envisioned).

Along the way he also discusses the liberal international order, the impact of the Cold War, the role of national interest, the concept of “responsibility to protect,” lawfare, the impact of technology, and much, much more. 

He comes to this conclusion:

“All of this means that the prospect of ever putting Putin in the dock or Putin’s lieutenants in the dock, or holding Xi accountable for genocide of the Uyghurs, or holding the– insert the list here– are nil…unless there’s massive regime change in those countries, unless somehow the liberal international order spreads to these totalitarian states.”

Critically, Adam doesn’t just identify the problem, he lays out a fascinating solution:

“Now all is not lost. What I am suggesting here is we need a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about the role of international criminal justice, which is still important, still worth studying, but we have to move the arena. Especially, for example, what’s going on in Ukraine. Let me ask you this question. If Putin’s army wasn’t committing atrocity after atrocity after atrocity in Ukraine, would Ukraine still be getting all the weapons and support that the Ukrainians are getting?”

“Let me ask you a question. If ISIS wasn’t decapitating people on television and burning people in cages, is it possible they still might have a rump caliphate? What is going to be able, hopefully, to deter these countries or deter countries from committing these war crimes is to appeal to their interests, not because of some weak threat to someday hold them in the dock, but to expose the horrors of what they’re actually doing, such that it garners international support for our cause.”

“And we need to learn how to do this. Sometimes we dismiss it too quickly. We need to move from the courtroom to the information arena. And what that means? Law school curriculum.”

“I submit that anybody teaching international criminal justice and international law should also marry it up with courses in public diplomacy, communications, and marketing.”

Adam goes on to explain how this can and should be done, using the Israeli experience as an illustration.  He readily acknowledges:

“It’s a paradigm shift that a lot of us aren’t going to be comfortable making because it requires a different way of teaching, a different area of study, stuff that’s new to us. But if international criminal justice is to survive in a meaningful way so it doesn’t go back into the purview of the PhDs…so it’s not academic only, this is a change that I think we need to make.”

Allow me to say again that Adam’s presentation is truly one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen.  Although you’ll get a lot just listening to it, this is one you may want to watch because you’ll also get the benefit of seeing Adam’s superb slides which wonderfully illustrate many of the points he makes. 

This presentation unpacks so many ‘big ideas’ in an extremely understandable way, it really is hard to imagine a better intellectual investment than this one. You can watch or listen heredon’t miss it!

About the Author:

Adam Oler is an associate professor of strategy and department chair at the National War College, National Defense University, in Washington, DC. Professor Oler spent twenty-four years as a judge advocate, serving multiple tours in Europe, Korea, and the Middle East. At the National War College, he instructs on national security design and implementation, the Middle East, and national security law. You can follow him on Twitter at @aonwc11.


The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

The views expressed by guest speakes do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself! 

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