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Otago senior lecturer Stephen Smith believes the proceedings of the International Criminal Court are of increasing importance for New Zealand.

It was a paper about the role of the prosecutor in the International Criminal Court (ICC) that first sparked Stephen Smith’s interest in the neophyte judicial body based in The Hague and inspired his passion for international law.

That was 2005 and Smith was a graduate student at Harvard Law School. A little more than a decade later, the ICC is a research focus for the senior lecturer and the topic of a popular paper he teaches at the University of Otago’s Faculty of Law.

Founded in 2002, the International Criminal Court is the world's first permanent, international court set up to prosecute the gravest international crimes – genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is considered the premier authority in international criminal law and New Zealand is among the 123 countries worldwide to have ratified the treaty that established the ICC.

Usually deemed the court of last resort, the ICC intervenes only when national authorities cannot – or will not – prosecute, and in its brief existence it has pursued prosecutions against Thomas Lubanga, the leader of a militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Ivory Coast's former President Laurent Gbagbo, both for war crimes.

“The International Criminal Court is still new. In fact, even the study of international criminal law is relatively new, only really in existence since World War Two,” Smith points out. “So, from an academic standpoint, these are emerging areas of scholarship and research.”

Smith – who has published scholarly articles on the ICC in the International Criminal Law Review and the Florida Journal of International Law – says the workings of the International Criminal Court, its proceedings and judgements are of increasing significance for New Zealand as this country holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2015-16.

New Zealand will play a role in some significant international decision-making, which could potentially include passing resolutions to give the ICC jurisdiction in certain areas, as happened with Darfur in 2005 and Libya in 2011, he explains.

Having agreed to co-operate with the court also means that that ICC judgements set precedents for New Zealand domestic law – making the ICC relevant to more than just the international community.

Students who have taken Smith’s Law 424 International Criminal Court paper have gone on to work at the ICC, clerking for judges at the court’s seat in the Netherlands.

“New Zealand law students are seen as highly qualified for international legal work,” Smith says.