Recent developments in international criminal law

2015 Bayly ValleryBy Vallery Bayly

The fight against impunity is central to many aspects of ASFC’s work. In Guatemala, in Haiti, in Colombia, in Mali, ASFC has emphasized the importance of combating impunity for serious human rights abuses. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve looked at the role of international criminal law as a tool to combat impunity, and some of the positive developments that have occurred over the last 25 years. Here are a few examples:

The establishment of the International Criminal Court

On July 1, 2002, the Rome Statute came into force, creating the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is a permanent institution that has jurisdiction over the most serious international crimes: most notably, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (Rome Statute, article 5). The ICC is particularly important in terms of what it represents: a willingness in the international community to devote attention and resources to the prosecution of serious international crimes. Its first judgment was rendered in 2012.

Domestic trials for serious violations of human rights

The ICC’s jurisdiction is “complementary” – meaning that domestic courts bear the primary responsibility for prosecuting serious international crimes, but the ICC can step in when domestic courts are either unable or unwilling to do so (see Article 17 of the Rome Statute). Many international crimes and cases of serious human rights abuses have been prosecuted at the national level on the basis of various types of jurisdiction, including universal jurisdiction (the notion that any state can prosecute the most serious international crimes, regardless of where they were committed). For an overview of cases that have been prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, see TRIAL’s website.

Some notable domestic cases include Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru who was convicted of human rights abuses committed during his presidency and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment by Peruvian courts. Closer to home, last year the Quebec Court of Appeal confirmed Désiré Munyaneza’s conviction and sentence for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the Rwandan genocide.

Development of the rules and principles of international criminal law

Efforts to prosecute international crimes at the international and domestic level have naturally led to the development of a jurisprudence of international crimes. International criminal law has also been codified in various ways. The Rome Statute is the most obvious example, but principles of international criminal law are also codified in instruments such as the Genocide Convention and the Convention against Torture. In Canada, the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of 2000 implements the Rome Statute in Canadian law and codifies a number of rules and principles of international criminal law in the Canadian context. Many other countries have similar laws. Codification and the development of jurisprudence have made international criminal law more precise, clear, and certain – although plenty of work still remains to be done.

Visibility

Perhaps most importantly, the visibility of international criminal law as a tool to combat impunity has increased. ASFC is one of many human rights organizations engaged in an ongoing discourse about impunity and the importance of seeking justice for the victims of serious human rights abuses.

There are still many challenges to overcome. Existing international criminal law institutions have been (justifiably) subject to criticism. Impunity remains a serious problem. But the tools to combat it exist, and human rights defenders have increasingly made use of them.

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