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International Criminal Law

OVERVIEW

International criminal law, though not quite as comprehensively codified or as widely ratified by States as international human rights obligations, is relevant to the study and protection of international human rights because it, generally, is aimed at punishing acts which affect fundamental human rights, namely: life, liberty, and security.  The codification of international criminal law can also make sense in light of the fact that this body of law aims to punish actions which may have been carried out as part of a broader State policy—meaning they are perhaps unlikely to be punished at the domestic level for as long as the responsible administration retains power—and/or which may threaten the sovereignty of another State—meaning the international community has an added interest in their prosecution.

Although States’ international human rights obligations would also require investigation and prosecution of such crimes, the international criminal law conventions and tribunals may be seen as particularly necessary with regard to States that refuse to comply with these obligations and/or are not (or were not at the relevant time) party to a binding mechanism for the adjudication of international human rights violations (namely, the Inter-American, European or African systems).

Like criminal law generally, international criminal law prohibits certain actions by individuals and establishes the sanctions applicable when an individual commits those actions.  In this regard, criminal law (whether domestic or international) differs from human rights law and international law generally, in that those held accountable are individuals, rather than governments.

International criminal law can be distinguished from domestic criminal law in that the former penalizes crimes which are particularly egregious and capable of producing wide-scale harm (such as crimes against humanity or genocide) and those crimes that can be thought of as ‘international’ in that they involve actions traditionally carried out by States or their agents (war crimes, acts of aggression) or are of a trans-national, or multi-jurisdictional, nature (terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, slave trade).

RELEVANT BODIES

INTERNATIONAL INSTRUMENTS

While international criminal law conventions govern the criminal responsibility of individuals, they also impose obligations on States, which accept the duty to prosecute or extradite individuals accused of international crimes and, when applicable, to cooperate with international criminal tribunals to facilitate their prosecution of such individuals.

In addition to the founding instruments of international criminal tribunals, discussed in the following paragraph, some sources of international criminal law include:

  • 1907 Hague Regulations (Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907)
  • Convention Against Torture (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New York, 10 December 1984)
  • Apartheid Convention (International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. New York, 30 November 1973)

U.S. Resists International Oversight, Reduces IACHR Funding over Reproductive Rights

Secretary Pompeo Delivers Remarks on the Release of the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

In another effort to both curtail international human rights oversight and advance a regressive view of reproductive rights, the United States Department of State indicated in late March 2019 that it would reduce its financial support for the region’s human rights bodies, which have urged States to repeal laws that criminalize abortion without any exceptions. [Washington Post; PAI] U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the U.S. would reduce its regular contribution to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional intergovernmental organization with 35 Member States, in an effort to target the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM). See U.S. Department of State, Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March 2019); Letter from Lankford et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, United States Senate (Dec. 21, 2018).

The announcement follows other recent efforts by the U.S. to undermine international human rights protections or oversight, including revoking the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s visa to enter the U.S., and efforts to weaken the recommendations on women’s reproductive health and rights during the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. [Reuters: Prosecutor; The Guardian] Read more

Suspected War Criminal Arrested in Central African Republic, Transferred to ICC

Alfred Yekatom makes first appearance before the ICC
Credit: ICC-CPI via Flickr

Alfred Yekatom, the first person to be transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in connection with the Court’s investigation into crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2012, made an initial appearance before the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber II on November 23. [ICC Press Release: Alfred; FIDH] Mr. Yekatom is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity between December 2013 and August 2014 in the context of the CAR’s ongoing conflict between the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka armed groups. [ICC Press Release: Yekatom] Yekatom is accused of having commanded an anti-balaka group that carried out killings, torture, forced displacement of Muslim civilians and looting and destruction of Muslim homes and places of worship, in western CAR. CAR authorities delivered Yekatom to the ICC on November 17 in compliance with the ICC’s November 11 warrant for his arrest. [ICC Press Release: Situation] On April 30, 2019, the Court will hold a hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations against him and, if so, to transfer his case to the Trial Chamber. [ICC Press Release: Yekatom]

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Texas Executes Man in Contravention of Multiple International Legal Decisions

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Credit: Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

The American state of Texas executed 64-year-old Mexican national Roberto Moreno Ramos on November 14, contravening the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and several human rights bodies, which had concluded he was entitled to a retrial or new sentencing hearing because of due process violations related to his trial, and should not be subjected to the death penalty because of his psychosocial disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release] Mr. Moreno Ramos, a Mexican citizen who had been arrested on suspicion of murder in 1992, was not afforded consular assistance or prompt, effective legal representation. See IACHR, Merits Report No. 1/05, Case 12.430, Roberto Moreno Ramos (United States), 28 January 2005. He is the sixth Mexican national to be executed in defiance of the ICJ’s 2004 judgment in Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States) ordering the “review and reconsider[ation]” of convictions and death sentences because of authorities’ failure to respect the rights of Mexican nationals and the Mexican government to consular information and notification. [Mexican Government Press Release]

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Children’s Rights Violated in U.S. Criminal Justice System, IACHR Reports

IACHR Launches Report on Children and Adolescents in the United States Adult Criminal Justice System. Credit: IACHR
IACHR Launches Report on Children and Adolescents in the United States Adult Criminal Justice System. Credit: IACHR

IACHR launches report in October 2018
Credit: IACHR

In a new report and interactive website, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has detailed flaws in the United States’ prosecution and incarceration of children, urging reforms to ensure that minors are not tried or sentenced as adults. IACHR, The Situation of Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System in the United States (2018). The report, released in September 2018, examines the legal framework that allows children to be tried in the adult criminal system in light of the State’s international legal obligations, the current status of children within the criminal system, and the conditions children face during their incarceration in adult facilities. See id. According to the IACHR, as of 2016, approximately 200,000 children were tried each year in U.S. adult criminal courts, and were held in adult penitentiaries in violation of their right to special protection and to be tried in a specialized juvenile system. [IACHR Press Release] While the U.S. has taken steps to reduce the number of children coming into contact with the adult criminal justice system, individual American states maintain laws and practices that allow children to be incarcerated in adult facilities. [IACHR Press Release] The report highlights the State’s failure to protect the rights of children in this respect, and recommends specific reforms. [IACHR Press Release] Read more

UN Committee Considers State Officials’ Immunity for Grave International Crimes

United Nations General Assembly hall
Credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

The Sixth Committee – an intergovernmental committee that considers legal questions in the United Nations General Assembly – finished late last month its consideration of a draft article that asserts State officials do not have immunity from the prosecution of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of apartheid, torture, and enforced disappearance in a foreign criminal jurisdiction; the debate arose from a draft article from the International Law Commission (ILC), a group of international legal experts who prepare draft conventions and codify existing rules of international law. The ILC will put forth the draft article as a recognition of existing State practice or as a proposal for a future international convention. See ILC, About the Commission. [UN Press Release: Debate Ends] The Sixth Committee debated the contents of the ILC’s most recent report released during its 69th Session, which included the ILC’s draft of its provisionally adopted Article 7 on international crimes for which immunity from rationae materiae jurisdiction (subject matter jurisdiction) does not apply. See International Law Commission, Report of the International Law Commission at its sixty-ninth session, UN Doc. A/72/10, 4 August 2017, para. 140.

The draft of Article 7 originated from the report of a special rapporteur – a member of the ILC – appointed to address the issue of State officials’ immunity. Some ILC members expressed disagreement with the special rapporteur’s position that States’ practice supports the finding of exceptions to State officials’ immunity – the substance of Article 7. The ILC provisionally adopted the text with only 21 of the 34 members voting in favor of it. [UN Press Release: Immunity] The Sixth Committee’s two-day discussion on the draft law mirrored many of the arguments that were debated within the ILC before its provisional adoption of Article 7, namely whether the basis for the Article is supported by customary international law, whether procedural requirements may address impunity, the balance between prosecution of State officials and State sovereignty, and the ILC’s view of Article 7’s function as either the codification of existing law or the development of law. See Report of the International Law Commission, at VII.C., 180–183. [UN Press Release: ImmunityRead more

Violence Following Kenya’s Presidential Election Prompts International Responses

UN Secretary General António Guterres meets with President Uhuru Kenyatta
Credit: UN Photo/Antonio Fiorente

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, last week urged Kenyan leaders to “calm a volatile political climate” while ensuring the right to peaceful assembly; his statement followed reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters in the wake of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s August 8th re-election. Reports indicate 24 people died due to the post-election violence. [Washington PostOHCHR Press Release: Zeid] In addition to Zeid’s statements, the UN Secretary General António Guterres, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) also responded to the post-election violence. The Secretary General called on leaders to settle disputes over the election through the appropriate institutions and to urge others to refrain from violence. [UNSG Press Release] The African Commission called for increased transparency of voter tallying, the avoidance of acts or statements inciting violence, and the use of legal avenues to address election related disputes. [ACHPR Press Release] While it was not responding directly to the post-election violence, the East African Community (EAC) Election Observer Mission to the Republic of Kenya (EAC Mission) did encourage anyone dissatisfied with the results to use the proper channels to challenge the outcome. [EAC Press Release] Despite the reports of post-election violence, Zeid, Guterres, the African Commission, and the EAC Mission recognized and commended Kenya’s peaceful voting process before the violence. [ACommHPR Press Release; EAC Press Release; OHCHR Press Release: Zeid; UNSG Press Release]

Kenya has a history of election related violence. Notably, during its 2007 elections, inter-ethnic clashes and police violence resulted in 1,100 people killed and 650,000 people displaced. [HRW: 2013] As a State party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as other international human rights treaties, Kenya has an obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill the rights to life, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and participation in public affairs under articles 4, 9, 11, and 13, respectively. Read more

European Court Rules Russia’s Gay Propaganda Law Violates Right to Non-discrimination

Activists use rainbow color lights to mark Pride in Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Credit: Yury Gavrikov via Wikimedia Commons

On June 20, 2016, a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that legislation in Russia banning the promotion of homosexuality, especially to minors, violated three gay activists’ rights to the freedom of expression and the prohibition of discrimination, enshrined in articles 10 and 14, respectively, of the European Convention on Human Rights. See ECtHR, Bayev and Others v. Russia, no. 67667/09, ECHR 2017, Judgment of 20 June 2017. Regarding the violation of the activists’ freedom of expression, the Court concluded that the law did not serve a legitimate goal to protect the morals or health of the public, and further held that it impermissibly deepened the stigmatization of the country’s homosexual minority, in contravention of the European Convention. See id. at para. 83. The law, the Court concluded, is discriminatory since it provides for different treatment solely on the basis of sexual orientation. See id. at para. 90. Civil society organizations have previously warned that Russia’s gay propaganda law has spread to other countries with proposals to enact similar legislation, including in other States that are subject to the European Court’s jurisdiction, such as Armenia, Latvia, and Lithuania. [Human Rights First; HRW] Read more

African Court: Côte d’Ivoire’s Partisan Electoral Body Violated International Norms

The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights in session in May 2016Credit: AfCHPR

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in session in May 2016
Credit: AfCHPR

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) has issued a new judgment, holding that Côte d’Ivoire violated various human rights obligations in establishing a partisan election monitoring body ahead of the 2015 national elections, the first held since Alassane Ouattara succeeded Laurent Gbagbo in the presidency following an end to the country’s civil war. See AfCHPR, Actions Pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme v. the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire, App. No. 001/2014, Judgment of 18 November 2016, para. 153. Gbagbo is currently facing trial at the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity charges related to violence following his defeat in the 2010 election. In its November 18, 2016 judgment, the African Court held that Côte d’Ivoire’s electoral body lacked the necessary independence and impartiality, thereby violating citizens’ rights to political participation and equal protection, because the body was composed of eight representatives of the ruling party and only four representatives of the political opposition and made decisions by simple majority. See id. at paras. 130-31. The Court ordered the State to amend the relevant law to comply with its international obligations. See id. at para. 153.

This is the first time the Court has found violations of certain provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which the Court determined are “human rights instruments” within its material jurisdiction. See id. at paras. 47-65. The Court has previously found a violation of the right to participate in government where independent candidates were effectively prevented from running for office. [IJRC] Read more

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