One of the founding principles of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is the prevention of mass atrocities by punishing those most responsible for them. This paper builds on the literature that has both hailed and critiqued the prospects of the ICC’s ability to deter future atrocities, adding insights from criminology and psychology to enhance understanding of the capacity of the ICC’s deterrent capabilities and more carefully scrutinize the exact workings of this process. After establishing an analytical framework, the paper applies this framework to the ICC.

The aim of this paper is to offer a more comprehensive overview of relevant factors for the ICC’s deterrence potential, focusing on the offender’s decision-making process. Building on previous criminological studies into the ICC’s deterrent effect, this paper will expand the analysis, incorporating insights from (social) psychology and political science, to offer additional perspectives and come to a more nuanced conclusion, thus refining understanding of the ICC’s potential for deterrence.

Although the ICC can constructively contribute to a normative shift toward accountability and a change in international rules of legitimacy, its prospects for the direct and meaningful deterrence of future atrocities are slim. The current practice of relying on the ICC as a crisis management tool is therefore both unwise and unfair.

I add insights on perceptual deterrence theory, the experiential effect, risk sensitivity, and a refined understanding of the place of extralegal sanctions. To this end, I present the most relevant factors in section I and then apply them to study the potential for ICC deterrence. The paper concludes that the prospects for legal deterrence by the ICC are limited, but that some hope for the prevention of atrocities by the ICC through more indirect means is warranted.