There are many reasons why victims of these crimes are denied justice. They include a lack of political will to investigate crimes and prosecute those responsible, weak criminal justice systems, and the marginalization of victims in society.
As a result, perpetrators may not be held to account and may even continue to hold positions in which they can commit violations or prevent accountability; victims are left to suffer; and few efforts are made to establish the truth or take steps to ensure that the crimes are never repeated. In these cases, international justice mechanisms can step in to ensure that crimes are properly investigated, that perpetrators are brought to justice, and victims receive reparation to address the harm done.
International justice mechanisms
The International Criminal Court (ICC)
Established in 2002, the ICC is a permanent court that can investigate and prosecute people suspected of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and (since 2018) the crime of aggression in situations where national authorities are unable or unwilling to act genuinely. A number of cases have been brought before the Court so far and alleged crimes in several countries are currently being investigated or examined by the ICC Prosecutor.
Hybrid courts are usually established to investigate and prosecute large-scale crimes under international law in countries which have gone through conflict or crisis. These courts are often established where the country’s own domestic justice system lacks the necessary infrastructure, human resources, legal framework or independence to meet fair trial standards or confront the complexities and political sensitivities of prosecutions. Hybrid tribunals have been established or proposed in a number of countries, including Bosnia, Cambodia and Sierra Leone.
Ad hoc courts
Two ad hoc tribunals have been established to date: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha, Tanzania, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague, The Netherlands. Both courts have now closed.
Increasingly, human rights monitoring and documenting initiatives and commissions have included international criminal investigation mandates. These bodies should be encouraged to co-operate with and complement international criminal mechanisms and processes wherever possible. One such mechanism, created by the UN General Assembly in 2016, is tasked with collecting evidence of violations in the Syrian civil war to support criminal proceedings in national, regional or international courts, in accordance with international law.
Universal jurisdiction refers to the principle that a national court may, and in some circumstances must, prosecute individuals for crimes under international law – such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or torture – wherever they happened, based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community or international order itself, which individual states may act to protect.
Case Study - Srebrenica Massacre
Mirsada Malagić lost her husband, two sons, her brother and other family members in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Five years later, she testified at the trial of Bosnian Serb Army officer Radislav Krstić at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. After giving evidence, Mirsada Malagić told the Court:
I should like to thank all of those who make it possible for us to come here, and if nothing else, say what happened, to find some relief in saying what happened to us, to try to show you what happened when Srebrenica fell, and simply to wish that may Srebrenica never happen again anywhere.
Radislav Krstić was sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment for his role in the killings and other crimes.
Video given courtesy of UN IRMCT
How does Amnesty promote international justice?
In addition to campaigning for national authorities to fulfil their obligations to ensure justice, truth and reparation for victims, Amnesty has helped to establish a worldwide system of international justice to step in when they fail to act, including through:
- Campaigning for the establishment and effective operation of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- Calling on states to exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes under international law.
- Calling for ad hoc international or hybrid courts to be established.
- Strengthening international, regional and national laws to address crimes under international law.
Amnesty International is also pushing for better access to international justice for victims and for international justice mechanisms to comply with human rights – including respecting the rights of suspects, victims and witnesses in their work. You can read more about this work here.
There are four main pillars underpinning Amnesty International’s work for international justice: justice, truth, full reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
By justice we mean that states must investigate all alleged crimes under international law and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute all those suspected of criminal responsibility in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to the death penalty.
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 publicly acknowledge the facts about the crimes committed. Some states have established truth commissions to achieve this, although these should never replace justice mechanisms.
By full reparation we mean effective measures – including restitution (for example, the return of property), compensation, rehabilitation for physical and psychological harm, and symbolic measures (such as memorials) – to address the suffering of victims and their families and help them to rebuild their lives.
By guarantees of non-recurrence we mean measures to ensure that the crimes will not be repeated. This might include efforts to address underlying discrimination, repealing or amending laws that contributed to the crimes, the vetting of security forces, and so on.
Governments should deliver justice, truth, full reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. But where they cannot, or will not, the international community must ensure accountability through international justice mechanisms.
What is Amnesty 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 joining the ICC and co-operating with it fully. States parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC should implement the Rome Statute’s provisions fully in their domestic law.
- States should exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes under international law by investigating and prosecuting persons suspected of committing them before national courts, regardless of where the crimes took place.
- Ad hoc international tribunals and hybrid criminal courts, as well as other appropriate international justice mechanisms, should be established, in particular where the ICC is unable to act.
- All international justice mechanisms investigating and prosecuting crimes under international law should ensure effective access to justice for victims and must fully respect human rights, including the rights of the accused, victims and witnesses, during their proceedings.
Genocide means certain acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
Crimes against humanity
These are crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians during peace or wartime. They include torture, enforced disappearances, killings, enslavement, deportation and certain crimes of sexual and gender based violence including rape.
War crimes are violations of international humanitarian law that are criminalized under international law. They include wilful killings, targeting civilians, torture, using poison or poisoned weapons, the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, and crimes of sexual violence.
Enforced disappearance is an arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
Extrajudicial executions are unlawful (without legal process) and deliberate killings carried out by a government (or with their complicity), or by a state official or those acting with the consent or acquiescence of state officials acting without orders.
Impunity is used to describe a situation where someone can commit an offence (intimidation, attacks or murder, for example) without facing punishment or consequences.
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countries are parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)
arrest warrants have been issued by the ICC so far
states can exercise universal jurisdiction over one or more crimes under international law.