How Serious are International Crimes? The Gravity Problem in International Criminal Law

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Modern international criminal law was born out of the Holocaust–the systematic extermination of millions of people. It was the gravity of those crimes that provided the theoretical and political justifications for the first international criminal trials at Nuremberg. Yet today, the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor is considering situations involving as few as six killings and an international tribunal has been established to address the assassination of a single political leader. This Article explains how the ambiguity of international criminal law’s foundational concept of gravity has facilitated this expansion and exposes some problematic consequences of the expansionist trend for state sovereignty and individual rights. Finally, the Article suggests a solution that moves beyond ambiguous gravity to interrogate the interests at stake in decisions about international criminal adjudication.