International Justice

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There are many reasons people get away with genocide, torture, disappearances and other grotesque human rights abuses.

But two in particular stand out: a lack of political will to investigate and prosecute people suspected of committing crimes, and weak criminal justice systems.

When the dust settles, it is the victors of any conflict who dole out justice and of course, rarely against themselves. Survivors often face discrimination – such as women raped in war. Sometimes the justice system simply no longer exists, or politicians try to “put the past behind” them with amnesties.  

Because of this, unspeakable acts can be seen as an inevitable consequence of conflict, as opposed to bad – and preventable – human decisions. 

Over 20 years, Amnesty has helped establish a system of international justice, including:

  • Campaigning for an International Criminal Court (ICC).
  • Promoting “universal jurisdiction” – if someone is accused of a crime, they can be tried anywhere they are found no matter where the offence was committed. The most famous example is the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, ex Chilean dictator, in London in 1998.
  • Calling for Ad hoc international courts such as in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Timor Leste.

The challenge now is to ensure that this new international justice system works.

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga hears the first-ever sentence delivered by The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, The Netherlands. 10 July, 2012. © JERRY LAMPEN/AFP/GettyImages


There are three main concepts underpinning international justice: Justice, Truth and Reparation.

By justice we mean that states must investigate all crimes and, prosecute suspects in fair trials. But, States must not resort to torture or the death penalty. This will just fuel the cycle of abuse further.

By truth we mean that victims and relatives – and in fact all of us – have a right to know what happened. The authorities must establish, and then, crucially, publicly acknowledge the facts about the crimes committed. Some countries which have been through years of turmoil, such as South Africa, have done this very successfully with Truth Commissions. But this should not include amnesties for past atrocities.

By full reparation we mean that the suffering of victims and their families must be addressed properly. They need help to rebuild their lives, which could include material or psychological support.

Governments should deliver justice, truth and reparations. But where they cannot, or will not, the international community must ensure justice through universal jurisdiction.

What Amnesty is calling for

There must be no safe havens. Those who commit the worst crimes imaginable, can no longer hide.

  • All states should show their commitment to international justice by fully cooperating with the International Criminal Court.
  • Intergovernmental organizations, especially the UN and other regional bodies, should cooperate with the ICC and enforce universal jurisdiction.
  • States should prosecute, or extradite, anyone suspected of serious crimes under international law.

The issue in detail

The International Criminal Court (ICC)

Established in 2002, this permanent court investigates and prosecutes crimes when national authorities are unable or unwilling. The ICC prosecutes people who are thought to be responsible for committing acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.

So far, ICC investigations and prosecutions have been largely in Africa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Uganda; Central African Republic; Darfur, Sudan; Kenya; Libya; Côte d'Ivoire; and Mali). the court has begun preliminary examinations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, Honduras, Iraq, Nigeria and Ukraine.

Quick glossary

Crimes against humanity – crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians during peace or war time. Including, enforced disappearances, killings, enslavement, deportation and mass, systematic rape.

Extrajudicial executions – unlawful (without legal process) and deliberate killings carried out by a government (or with their complicity), or by a state official acting without orders.

Genocide - acts committed with the intent to destroy, completely or partially, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Impunity - the phrase used when someone can commit an offence (intimidation, attacks, murder etc.) without punishment or consequences.

War crimes - crimes that violate the laws or customs of war defined by the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Including targeting civilians, torture, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war.

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Key Facts


121 countries have agreed to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC)