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International criminal law

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International criminal law

This article is about international criminal law and crimes against international law. For crimes that have actual or potential effect across national borders, see Transnational crime.

International criminal law is a body of international law designed to prohibit certain categories of conduct commonly viewed as serious atrocities and to make perpetrators of such conduct criminally accountable for their perpetration. Principally, it deals with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, as well as the crime of aggression. This article also discusses crimes against international law, which may not be part of the body of international criminal law.

"Classical" international law governs the relationships, rights, and responsibilities of states. Criminal law generally deals with prohibitions addressed to individuals, and penal sanctions for violation of those prohibition imposed by individual states. International criminal law comprises elements of both in that although its sources are those of international law, its consequences are penal sanctions imposed on individuals.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague
The Lebanon Tribunal in Leidschendam, Netherlands


  • History 1
  • Sources of International Criminal Law 2
  • The importance of prosecuting international crimes 3
  • Institutions of international criminal law 4
    • International Criminal Court 4.1
    • International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda 4.2
    • International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia 4.3
  • Recognition of International Criminal Law in Domestic Jurisdictions 5
    • United Kingdom 5.1
      • Legal person's criminal liability 5.1.1
      • Legal person's liability in tort 5.1.2
    • United States 5.2
      • U.S. implementation 5.2.1
      • Legal person's liability in tort 5.2.2
    • Canada 5.3
      • Natural persons 5.3.1
      • Legal persons 5.3.2
    • France 5.4
      • Natural persons 5.4.1
      • Legal persons 5.4.2
    • Norway 5.5
      • Natural persons 5.5.1
      • Legal persons 5.5.2
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Some precedents in international criminal law can be found in the time before World War I. However, it was only after the war that a truly international crime tribunal was envisaged to try perpetrators of crimes committed in this period. Thus, the Treaty of Versailles stated that an international tribunal was to be set up to try Wilhelm II of Germany. In the event however, the Kaiser was granted asylum in the Netherlands. After World War II, the Allied powers set up an international tribunal to try not only war crimes, but crimes against humanity committed under the Nazi regime. The Nuremberg Tribunal held its first session in 1945 and pronounced judgments on 30 September / 1 October 1946. A similar tribunal was established for Japanese war crimes (The International Military Tribunal for the Far East). It operated from 1946 to 1948.

After the beginning of the war in Bosnia, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and, after the genocide in Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994. The International Law Commission had commenced preparatory work for the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court in 1993; in 1998, at a Diplomatic Conference in Rome, the Rome Statute establishing the ICC was signed. The ICC issued its first arrest warrants in 2005.

Sources of International Criminal Law

International criminal law is a subset of international law. As such, its sources are the same as those that comprise international law. The classical enumeration of those sources is in Article 38(1) of the 1946 Statute of the International Court of Justice and comprise: treaties, customary international law, general principles of law (and as a subsidiary measure judicial decisions and the most highly qualified juristic writings). The ICC statute contains an analogous, though not identical, set of sources that the ICC may rely on.

The importance of prosecuting international crimes

The prosecution of severe international crimes—including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—is necessary to enforce international criminal law and deliver justice to victims.

This is an important component of transitional justice, or the process of transforming societies into rights-respecting democracies and addressing past human rights violations.

Investigations and trials of leaders who have committed crimes and caused mass political or military atrocities is a key demand of victims of human rights abuses. Prosecution of such criminals can play a key role in restoring dignity to victims, and restoring trusting relationships in society.[1]

The International Criminal Court, as described below, can play an important role in prosecuting international crimes in cases where domestic courts are unwilling or unable to do so.

Institutions of international criminal law

Today, the most important institution is the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as several ad hoc tribunals:

Apart from these institutions, some "hybrid" courts and tribunals exist—judicial bodies with both international and national judges:

International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (French: Cour Pénale Internationale; commonly referred to as the ICC or ICCt)[2] is a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression (although it cannot currently exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression).[3][4]

The court's creation perhaps constitutes the most significant reform of international law since 1945. It gives authority to the two bodies of international law that deal with treatment of individuals: human rights and humanitarian law.

It came into being on July 1, 2002—the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, entered into force[5]—and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date.[6] The court's official seat is in The Hague, Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.[7]

As of September 2014, 122 states[8] are states parties to the Statute of the Court, including all of South America, nearly all of Europe, most of Oceania and roughly half the countries in Africa.[9] A further 31 countries,[8] including Russia, have signed but not ratified the Rome Statute.[9] The law of treaties obliges these states to refrain from “acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty until they declare they do not intend to become a party to the treaty.[10] Three of these states—Israel, Sudan and the United States—have informed the UN Secretary General that they no longer intend to become states parties and, as such, have no legal obligations arising from their former representatives' signature of the Statute.[9][11] Ukraine, a non-ratifying signatory, accepted the Court's jurisdiction regarding a limited period in 2013-2014.[12] 41 United Nations member states[8] have neither signed nor ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute; some of them, including China and India, are critical of the Court.[13][14] A 2009 declaration by the Palestinian National Authority accepting the jurisdiction of the Court[15] was deemed invalid by the Prosecutor in early 2012 as he did not consider Palestine a "state" for the purposes of the Rome Statute.[16] The Prosecutor does not consider this situation healed by a vote in the United Nations General Assembly later in 2012 which recognized Palestine as a non-member observer state.[17][18]

The court can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council.[19] It is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.[20][21] Primary responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is therefore left to individual states.[22]

To date, the Court:has opened investigations into

  • The International Criminal Court
  • The Hague Justice Portal publishes developments in The Hague courts, tribunals and organisations including the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court.
  • The Documentation Centre Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM) provides access to several databases on human rights and international criminal law.
  • United Nations Rule of Law, the United Nations' centralised website on the rule of law.
  • Online Journal of International Law
  • Cambodia Tribunal Monitor
  • Peace Palace Library - Research Guide
  • Critical Approaches to International Criminal Law

External links

  • John E. Ackerman and Eugene O'Sullivan, Practice and Procedure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia with selected materials from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The Hague etc.: Kluwer Law International, 2002, xxi + 555 pp. ISBN 90-411-1478-5
  • Ilias Bantekas, Susan Nash, Mark Mackarel, International Criminal Law. London etc.: Cavendish, 2001, lvi + 323 pp. ISBN 1-85941-557-1
  • M. Cherif Bassiouni, Introduction to International Criminal Law. Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2003, xxxvi + 823 pp. ISBN 1-57105-286-0
  • Yves Beigbeder, Judging War Criminals. The Politics of International Justice. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999, xvii + 230 pp. ISBN 0-333-68153-3
  • Kriangsak Kittichaisaree, International Criminal Law. Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2002, xxxi + 482 pp. ISBN 0-19-876577-0
  • Hans Köchler, Global Justice or Global Revenge? International Criminal Justice at the Crossroads, Vienna / New York: Springer, 2003, ix + 449 pp. ISBN 3-211-00795-4
  • Gerhard Werle and Florian Jessberger (eds.), Principles of International Criminal Law. Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 3rd. ed. 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-870359-4
  • Lyal S. Sunga, The Emerging System of International Criminal Law: Developments in Codification and Implementation. Kluwer, 1997, 508 pp. ISBN 90-411-0472-0
  • Lyal S. Sunga, Individual Responsibility in International Law for Serious Human Rights Violations. Nijhoff, 1992, 252 pp. ISBN 0-7923-1453-0
  • Alexander Zahar and Goran Sluiter, International Criminal Law: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, xlviii + 530 pp. ISBN 978-0-406-95904-1


  1. ^ "Criminal Justice", International Center for Transitional Justice
  2. ^ International Criminal Court is sometimes abbreviated as ICCt to distinguish it from several other organisations abbreviated as ICC. However, the more common abbreviation ICC is used in this article.
  3. ^ Article 5 of the Rome Statute. Accessed 20 March 2008.
  4. ^ United Nations Department of Public Information, December 2002. The International Criminal Court. Accessed 5 December 2006.
  5. ^ Amnesty International (11 April 2002). "The International Criminal Court – A Historic Development in the Fight for Justice". Retrieved 20 March 2008.
  6. ^ Article 11 of the Rome Statute. Accessed 20 March 2008.
  7. ^ Article 3 of the Rome Statute. Accessed 20 March 2008.
  8. ^ a b c The sum of (a) states parties, (b) signatories and (c) non-signatory United Nations member states is 194. This number is one more than the number of United Nations member states (193) due to the Cook Islands being a state party but not a United Nations member state.
  9. ^ a b c United Nations Treaty Database entry regarding the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Retrieved 10 March 2010.
  10. ^ The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Article 18. Accessed 23 November 2006.
  11. ^ John R Bolton, 6 May 2002. International Criminal Court: Letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. US Department of State. Accessed 2006-11-23.
  12. ^ Ukraine accepts ICC jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed between 21 November 2013 and 22 February 2014. ICC press release. 17 April 2014. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  13. ^ “China's Attitude Towards the ICC”, Lu Jianping and Wang Zhixiang, Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2005-07-06.
  14. ^ India and the ICC, Usha Ramanathan, Journal of International Criminal Law, 2005.
  15. ^ "Declaration by the Palestinian National Authority Accepting the Jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court" (PDF). International Criminal Court. 2009-01-21. Retrieved 2011-04-06. 
  16. ^ ICC Prosecutor's update on the situation in Palestine. 3 April 2012. Retrieved 12 April 2012.
  17. ^ Q&A: Palestinians' upgraded UN status. BBC. 30 November 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  18. ^ "Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2013". Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 2013-11-25. Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  19. ^ Articles 12 & 13 of the Rome Statute. Accessed 20 March 2008.
  20. ^ Article 17 of the "Rome Statute". Retrieved 20 March 2008.
  21. ^ Article 20 of the "Rome Statute". Retrieved 20 March 2008.
  22. ^ International Criminal Court. Office of the Prosecutor. Accessed 21 July 2007.
  23. ^ "Situations and Cases". ICC. Retrieved 2014-09-24. 
  24. ^ "Preliminary Examinations". ICC. Retrieved 2014-11-09. 
  25. ^ United Nations Security Council Resolution 955. S/RES/955(1994) 8 November 1994. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  26. ^ United Nations Security Council Resolution 977. S/RES/977(1995) 22 February 1995. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  27. ^ United Nations Security Council Resolution 1165. S/RES/1165(1998) 30 April 1998. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  28. ^ United Nations Security Council Resolution 1824. S/RES/1824(2008) page 1. 18 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  29. ^ [1]
  30. ^ [2] Reuters (July 29, 2008)
  31. ^ Completion Strategy
  32. ^ [3]


See also

If a business entity domiciled in Norway is involved in unlawful activity committed outside the jurisdiction, both civil and criminal actions are available subject to the rule of "double actionability", i.e., the activity must have been unlawful under the laws of both Norway and the country of commission. The Norwegian Code of Compensation allows actions for damages for the loss and damage arising from the breach of international law. Civil jurisdiction is based on residence or temporary personal presence for natural persons and the place where the board of directors has its seat. Non-nationals can be sued in Norway if any business activity occurs in Norway. The court must be conveniens, i.e., objectively competent in a local and functional way and, in some cases, this requires the defendant's consent.

Legal persons

Norwegian municipal law incorporates specific areas of international law, but there must be a matching penal provision in the domestic criminal law as a precondition to enforcement. Norway is a signatory to the International Criminal Court which has complementary jurisdiction to municipal criminal courts, albeit that the local courts have precedence to prosecute the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Norway prosecutes international crimes using domestic penal law, e.g., genocide can be treated as homicide, torture as an offence against the person, etc. Norwegian criminal law is applicable to acts committed abroad by any Norwegian national or any person domiciled in Norway when the act is a felony under the law of the country in which it is committed. There is a general discretion to decline a prosecution which occurred in a case brought against the Israeli Prime Minister.

Natural persons


In French law, a civil action can be brought jointly with a penal action before a criminal court. Corporate liability is covered in Articles 121-2 of the new Criminal Code which provide that legal persons will be liable in the cases identified by the Legislature and Article 213-3 provides that legal persons may incur criminal liability for all crimes against humanity.

Legal persons

  • nationality of the perpetrator (active personality jurisdiction) of the crime or the victim (passive personality jurisdiction);
  • Events constituting the crime represent a connected series of acts or an indivisible act occurring both in France and another state, or where there were acts of complicity in France for a crime committed abroad, if the acts are criminal under all relevant systems of law; or
  • Concept of universality where French public policy interests are affected.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction is based on a connection with France through:

The new Criminal Code includes a series of provisions describing crimes against humanity in considerable detail, including genocide and aggravated war crimes. A limited number of international crimes have equivalents in French domestic law, e.g., forced labour is the equivalent of illegal confinement.

Natural persons


Companies are not expressly included or excluded from prosecution for international crimes under CAHW. but all the standard remedies in tort are available against corporations for activities committed outside the jurisdiction. For civil jurisdiction, the court requires a "real and substantial connection" with the subject matter of the case (i.e., the forum conveniens rule).

Legal persons

In Canada, the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, S.C. 2000 (CAHW) has incorporated the following as domestic crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, breach of responsibility by a military commander or a superior (usually a civilian superior), offences against the administration of justice of the International Criminal Court, and possession or laundering of proceeds derived from these crimes. Normally, criminal jurisdiction is exclusively territorial, but CAHW invokes universal jurisdiction as defined in customary international law.

Natural persons


In personam jurisdiction over a corporation may be "general"—i.e., a suit may be brought for any cause of action over which the forum court has subject matter jurisdiction and is a proper venue; or "specific", i.e., the suit may address only those activities which gave rise to the cause of action. Even if the jurisdiction and venue are proper, a federal court has a discretion to dismiss the suit under the act of state doctrine or one of its related doctrines, such as comity or political question.

  1. It is organized in a U.S. state's jurisdiction;
  2. It is doing business in a U.S. jurisdiction;
  3. It has consented to be sued; or
  4. It appears in court to defend the action without specifying that the purpose of the appearance is a special appearance.

The Filartiga ruling allows a range of tort claims for alleged breaches of the "law of nations". Companies may also be liable for the illegal exploitation of resources abroad under the National Stolen Properties Act and subsidiary of a U.S. corporation. U.S. courts have in personam (the Latin tag for "personal jurisdiction") over a corporation if:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

Although U.S. federal courts do not apply the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir., June 30, 1980), interpreted the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C., which provides:

Legal person's liability in tort

Because United States federal criminal law is statutory, the relevant international criminal prohibition must have been incorporated directly into U.S. criminal law through Congressional legislation before the matter can be prosecuted in United States Courts. Congress has enacted statutes covering genocide, war crimes, torture, piracy, slavery, and trafficking in women and children to meet the U.S. obligations under international agreements.

U.S. implementation

United States

Under the Rules of the Supreme Court, a court can accept claims against a corporation for a tort arising out of an international crime committed outside the jurisdiction so long as there is some real connection with the UK (see forum shopping and forum non conveniens). This liability is usually based on some activity committed within the jurisdiction or on the fact that profits from the tortious activity have been received within the jurisdiction. Similarly, most breaches of international human rights would be tortious, e.g., torture could be trespass to the person, etc. Civil proceedings may be served on a person who is physically present within the jurisdiction, even if only temporarily. Proceedings may also be served outside the jurisdiction with the permission of the court. This will usually be granted for defendants resident in the lex loci solutionis (the Latin tag for "the law of the place of performance whether in contract or tort), the lex situs (the Latin tag for "the law of the place where the property is located") or the proper law state.

Legal person's liability in tort

It is a rule of statutory interpretation that unless a contrary intention appears, the word "person" includes any body of persons corporate or unincorporated. Thus, once the principle of corporate liability for the form of legal entity is accepted, the entity can be charged with any international offence no matter where it was committed in the same way as a natural person.

Legal person's criminal liability

Under section 51(1) of the International Criminal Court Act 2001, genocide and crimes against humanity committed either in the United Kingdom or by United Kingdom nationals abroad can be prosecuted but, as a dualist nation, other prosecutions can only be mounted where the United Kingdom has acceded to the Treaties and Conventions that create the offences including: war crimes, torture, and enslavement and forced labour offences. The criminal jurisdiction is presumed territorial in the absence of express words and based on the presence of the accused within the jurisdiction. There are a number of statutes that impose criminal liability on UK and/or non-UK nationals who commit particular acts outside the jurisdiction, but this can only be exercised where the individual is present or visits the United Kingdom, otherwise the UK government would need to seek extradition from the state in which he is located.

United Kingdom

Recognition of International Criminal Law in Domestic Jurisdictions

On 1 July 2013, an International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals will begin functioning with respect to the work begun by the ICTY. The ICTY has been called upon by the United Nations Security Council to finish its work by 31 December 2014 and to prepare its closure and transition of cases to the Mechanism.

The Court was established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council, which was passed on 25 May 1993. It has jurisdiction over four clusters of crime committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991: grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, violations of the laws or customs of war, genocide, and crime against humanity. The maximum sentence it can impose is life imprisonment. Various countries have signed agreements with the UN to carry out custodial sentences. The last indictment was issued 15 March 2004. The Tribunal aims to complete all trials by mid-2011 and all appeals by 2013, with the exception of Radovan Karadžić whose trial is expected to end in 2012 and the appeal to be heard by February 2014.[31] Goran Hadžić has been charged, however is still at large and thus do not fall within the court's completion strategy.[32]

The International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991, more commonly referred to as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or ICTY, is a body of the United Nations established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and to try their perpetrators. The tribunal is an ad hoc court which is located in The Hague, the Netherlands.

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

On July 1, 2012, an International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals will begin functioning with respect to the work begun by the ICTR. The ICTR has been called upon by the United Nations Security Council to finish its work by December 31, 2014, and to prepare its closure and transition of cases to the Mechanism.

So far, the Tribunal has finished 50 trials and convicted 29 accused persons. Another 11 trials are in progress. 14 individuals are awaiting trial in detention; but the prosecutor intends to transfer 5 to national jurisdiction for trial. 13 others are still at large, some suspected to be dead.[29] The first trial, of Jean-Paul Akayesu, began in 1997. Jean Kambanda, interim Prime Minister, pleaded guilty. According to the ICTR's Completion Strategy, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1503, all first-instance cases were to have completed trial by the end of 2008 (this date was later extended to the end of 2009).[30]

The tribunal has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which are defined as violations of Common Article Three and Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions (dealing with war crimes committed during internal conflicts).

In 1995 it became located in Arusha, Tanzania, under Resolution 977.[26] (From 2006, Arusha also became the location of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights). In 1998 the operation of the Tribunal was expanded in Resolution 1165.[27] Through several resolutions, the Security Council called on the Tribunal to complete its investigations by end of 2004, complete all trial activities by end of 2008, and complete all work in 2012.[28]

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), or the Tribunal pénal international pour le Rwanda (TPIR), is an international court established in November 1994 by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 955 in order to judge people responsible for the Rwandan Genocide and other serious violations of the international law in Rwanda, or by Rwandan citizens in nearby states, between 1 January and 31 December 1994.[25]

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

As of March 2011, three trials against four people are underway: two trials regarding the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one trial regarding the Central African Republic. Another two people have been committed to a fourth trial in the situation of Darfur, Sudan. One confirmation of charges hearing (against one person in the situation of the DR Congo) is to start in July 2011 while two new cases (against a total of six persons in the situation of Kenya) will begin with the suspects' first appearances in April 2011.

It publicly indicted 36 people. The ICC has issued arrest warrants for 28 individuals and summonses to eight others. Seven persons are in detention. Proceedings against 25 are ongoing: eleven are at large as fugitives, two are under arrest but not in the Court's custody, eight are in the pre-trial phase, another three are at trial, and the prosecution is appealing one individual's acquittal. Proceedings against eleven have been completed: two have been convicted, four have had the charges against them dismissed, two has had the charges against them withdrawn, one has had his case declared inadmissible, and three have died before trial.


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