Human Rights Review

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 289–315 | Cite as

A “Slice of Cheese”—a Deterrence-Based Argument for the International Criminal Court

  • Jakob von Holderstein Holtermann


Over the last decade, theorists have persistently criticised the assumption that the International Criminal Court (ICC) can produce a noteworthy deterrent effect. Consequently, consensus has emerged that we should probably look for different ways to justify the ICC or else abandon the prestigious project entirely. In this paper, I argue that these claims are ill founded and rest primarily on misunderstandings as to the idea of deterrence through punishment. They tend to overstate both the epistemic certainty as to and the size of the deterrent effect necessary in order to thus justify punishment. I argue that we should in general expect reasonably humane punitive institutions to lead to better consequences than if we abolish punishment entirely, and I show that, contrary to widespread assumption among critics of the ICC, we should not expect the conditions characteristically surrounding mass atrocity to undermine this presumption. Properly understood, the ICC equals adding another “slice of cheese” to our comprehensive crime preventive system modelled along the lines of James Reason’s Swiss cheese model of accident causation and risk management. Undoubtedly, some future perpetrators will elope through the holes in this layer too, but others will be deterred.


The International Criminal Court Mass atrocity Punishment Deterrence Prevention The “Swiss cheese model” 



I would like to thank Martin Vinding, Mikkel Munch-Fals, Thomas Søbirk Petersen, Pelle Guldborg Hansen, Kira Vrist Rønn, Inge Schiermacher, Stig Andur Pedersen and, in particular, Frej Klem Thomsen, Jesper Ryberg and two anonymous reviewers at Human Rights Review for discussion and valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department for Philosophy and Science StudiesRoskilde UniversityRoskildeDenmark

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