International Criminal Law


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).


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)
  • 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)