Human Rights and International Law (22): The Usefulness of Retroactive Laws

George Steiner, in his magnificent novel about the fate of an escaped Adolf Hitler in post-war South America, describes rights as an ontological totality, or, in other words, a reality that encompasses the whole world and all phenomena in it. Rights are not just a set of local commands, only valid in some corner of the world or at some moment in history, or only applicable to a certain class of people. It would be unacceptable to have one part of reality – either a part of the world or a part of time – that is free from the moral power of rights.

The Israeli secret agents who, in Steiner’s book, captured the old Hitler in the forests of South America rightly believed that he could be tried by their makeshift jungle court and that their present-day norms dealing with genocide and persecution could be used to judge him, even though these norms did not exist at the time when Hitler committed his crimes or in the places where he committed them.

Human rights are therefore an exception to the otherwise very sensible rule that laws should not be applied retroactively or “ex post facto”. Certain actions that take place in a certain country at a certain moment in time, and that are not illegal in the context of the law as it is valid in the country and at the time, may afterwards – after the facts – be judged as violations of human rights, even if human rights were not part of positive law at the time. Otherwise, a tyrannical legislator such as Hitler may make it forever impossible to judge his deeds of oppression and to punish him, even after he and his regime are defeated. We shouldn’t be willing to accept an absolute definition of the prohibition on retroactive laws that leads to impunity. If violations of human rights can only be punished according to the laws that are in force in the country in which the violations occur, and that are in force at the moment that they occur, then a bit of creative legislation will lead to total freedom of action for the most brutal dictators. And no change of regime or military defeat will ever harm them. They will have a life-long insurance against justice.

However, the prohibition on retroactive laws is an important achievement, and is even part of the internationally accepted corpus of human rights. See for example article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed.

The fact that human rights laws are an exception to the general rule is justifiable on two grounds:

  • First, it would be unreasonable to require that the system of human rights contain the seeds of its own destruction. Requiring the system to incorporate an absolute prohibition on retroactive laws, one that also makes retroactive human rights laws impossible, would mean introducing one rule in the system that can undo all other human rights rules. The absolute rule on retroactive laws would allow malevolent legislators to neutralize all other human rights rules in the system.
  • Second, the main rationale for the rule on retroactive laws is the fact that we must be able to know in advance whether our actions are or are not permitted by the law. Otherwise we are unable to plan our actions in a manner that is appropriate for law-abiding citizens and we run the risk of inadvertently violating the law. A law that is unknown to citizens is plainly absurd, and retroactive laws are by definition unknown before they are introduced. If laws are enacted that punish actions after they have occurred, then we risk being harmed by the unknown penal consequences of our actions, actions that we believe are legal. However, this rationale is absent in the case of human rights. Even if human rights are not part of existing law, most people will not inadvertently violate human rights. Human rights, even if they are not part of the law, are known to most citizens, and those who violate them know that even if their law allows them to do so, they can one day be held to account. Punishing someone on the basis of human rights that were not part of the law when the punishable act was committed, is clearly not the same thing as punishing someone for driving in a pedestrian zone when this zone was accessible for cars at the moment of the “infraction”.

Rights violations must always be punishable, even if the law that makes them punishable only comes into force after the violations have occurred, for example after the overthrow of a dictatorship or after the military defeat of the violators. All other acts that do not imply a violation of human rights, can only be punishable if they are a crime according to the law at the moment that these acts are committed. Generally, one cannot punish someone for an act that is not a crime and only becomes a crime afterwards, because otherwise this person is unable to know whether his act is legal or illegal and is unable to plan his actions in a way that fits a law-abiding citizen.

The exception to the general rule – this general rule being itself a particular case of the even more general rule of “nullum crimen sine lege“, no crime without a law – was introduced by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

[C]rimes against humanity were made punishable even if perpetrated in accordance with domestic laws … In so doing, it [the tribunal] indubitably applied ex post facto law; in other words it applied international law retroactively”. A. Cassese, International Law in a Divided World, p. 291-292.

[C]rimes against humanity … were defined in the Tribunal’s Charter as follows: “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated”. In some respects, crimes against humanity are wider than war crimes; they can be committed before a war as well as during a war, and they can be directed against “any civilian population”, including the wrongdoing state’s own population. The prohibition of “crimes against humanity” thus constituted an exception to the old rule that a state was entitled to treat its nationals as it pleased; and it is fairly clear that this prohibition was not accepted as part of international law before 1945″. M. Akehurst, A Modern Introduction to International Law, p. 278-279.

Why do I discuss all this? The obvious temporal aspect of retroactive laws can have spatial consequences. If we are not bound by the rule on retroactive laws where human rights are concerned – which is, I admit, a somewhat stretched interpretation of the Nuremberg exception that only mentions some types of rights violation – then we can do as if human rights are law and we can always punish rights violations, even if these violations were not illegal at the moment that they were committed. We can apply this principle in a spatial dimension rather than a temporal dimension. If we can act as if human rights were law in a previous period of history in which they evidently were not law, then we can also act as if they are law in another place in the world, a place in which they are not yet part of the local law.

This way we can elude the perpetual discussions about the application of international law, about the force of human rights treaties in domestic law, about the role of reservations, about the priority or superiority of international law, about the extent to which some or all human rights are part of international customary law, about whether human rights are part of ius cogens etc. For me, this is no fundamental modification of the Nuremberg-principle, but it has far-reaching consequences. And it is not as farfetched as it may seem at first glance. Most people will agree that it would be wrong to judge someone solely by the laws of his country. Laws, after all, can be incomplete or even immoral.


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