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).
- International Criminal Court
- International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
- International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)
- Internationalized criminal tribunals, which may be special courts, or chambers within domestic courts
- See also the exercise of universal jurisdiction by domestic courts
See IJRC’s index and summary of cases before the ICTR and ICTY for information on prosecutions by those courts.
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)
- the four Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols
- Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, Geneva, 12 August 1949
- Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949
- Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949
- Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977
- Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), 8 June 1977
- Genocide Convention (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. New York, 9 December 1948)
- 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)
- Convention on Protection of Cultural Property (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Hague, 14 May 1954)