A beginner's guide to human rights jargon

By Ben Beaumont London,

Baffled by technical human rights terms and precise legal definitions?

You’re not alone. Here’s a quick glossary of some of the most troublesome words and phrases.

Commute

Commute means to replace a punishment, usually a death sentence, with a less severe one. For example, Amnesty called for the USA to commute to time served the 35-year jail sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who had been arrested after leaking classified government material.

Crimes against humanity

When certain acts – including murder, torture and slavery – form part of a widespread attack on a civilian population by a state or organization. Unlike war crimes, they can take place at times of peace as well as during conflict. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is one example of a crime against humanity.

Extrajudicial executions

Unlawful killings ordered by a government, or committed with its knowledge and support. They can be carried out by the military, police, or by civilians working with government forces. For example, Hamas forces in Gaza committed serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, torture and abductions, during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict.

Activists in Ottawa, Canada, protest ahead of the Sochi Olympics in Russia. Credit: Paul Thompson

Freedom of expression

The right to seek, receive and share information and ideas, without fear or interference. It is closely linked with freedom of association (the right to meet with anyone you choose, for example, to form and join clubs, societies or trade unions) and the right to take part in a peaceful assembly, such as a demonstration or public meeting.

Immunity (from prosecution)

Allows an accused person to avoid prosecution for a crime because of their job or office. Amnesty International is opposed to immunity. For example, Amnesty has called for the rejection of immunity in the Central African Republic so that people who committed crimes during conflict there are brought to justice.

Impunity

Impunity is when people who have committed crimes avoid punishment. For example, there is a ‘culture of impunity’ among police in the Philippines, who are able to torture people without fear of being punished. Amnesty calls for these people to be tried and sentenced fairly, according to the law.

Amnesty supporters in London march for prisoners of conscience in 1983. © Raoul Shade

Prisoner of conscience

A prisoner of conscience is someone who is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or their religious, political or other beliefs, and who hasn’t used or advocated violence. For example, Dr Mohammed al-Roken is a current prisoner of conscience in the United Arab Emirates, jailed for 10 years following a deeply unfair trial.

War crimes

War crimes are serious crimes committed during armed conflicts, which could include murdering prisoners of war, killing hostages, torture and destroying towns and villages. A recent example is in the Ukraine, where there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes, including torture and summary killings of prisoners.


A version of this feature appeared in the July-September issue of Wire, Amnesty's global magazine.